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Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.

Jerry Brewer
The Mariners can't give up on Justin Smoak, but they need to start hedging

By Jerry Brewer
Seattle Times staff columnist

Even on a team that shares woe as liberally as the Mariners, Justin Smoak is a standout catastrophe. The 25-year-old first baseman, the best prospect Seattle acquired in the 2010 Cliff Lee trade, qualifies as a major-leaguer only on the technicality that the Mariners somehow are still allowed to call themselves a big-league team.

In terms of production, it's easy to argue that Smoak is the worst-hitting first baseman in baseball. His .203 average ranks 46th among major-league first basemen. His .332 slugging percentage ranks 47th at his position. His .597 on-base-plus-slugging percentage ranks 49th. And, yes, there are still only 30 teams in the major leagues.

So, most backup first basemen are performing better than Smoak, who was expected to emerge in his third season. But there has been no breakthrough, unless ranking seventh at his position in strikeouts now counts as an accolade. How bad is bad? Ichiro has more extra-base hits than Smoak this season.

Smoak's struggles represent the ugliest and most perilous part of trying to rebuild via such a complete youth movement. While it's far too early to make a final judgment, humiliation for the sake of patience serves no purpose, either.

Over the past week, Mariners manager Eric Wedge has grown even more tired of witnessing what he calls "Groundhog Day" with the .230-hitting Mariners, and he has hinted at — or publicly lobbied for? — significant change. He is in favor of multiple members of the Mariners' young core being sent to Class AAA Tacoma for a while. And there's no question that Smoak should be atop that list.

And so, now that a merciful All-Star break has arrived for the Mariners, here's a story line to ponder as the team scrambles to salvage something in the second half: Will the Mariners be honest with themselves when assessing what to do about their struggling youth?

Both Smoak and second baseman Dustin Ackley, perhaps the two most important developmental pieces in this lineup, could use some time in Tacoma. But that opens the door even wider for criticism of general manager Jack Zduriencik's rebuilding plan. If the next Mark Teixeira and the next Chase Utley are struggling this much, what do the Mariners really have?

That will be the obvious first question, but developing players in a sport that requires the ability to handle significant failure is a much more nuanced endeavor. It's highly possible that Ackley, who is in his first full season, and Smoak, who was rushed to the majors by Texas, will become good players. Then again, the same possibility exists that they will be among the thousands of surefire prospects who couldn't live up to the hype.

In a sense, the front office is required to dance a two-step skillfully. It must alternate between absolute faith and pre-emptive hedging from month to month, depending on a player's performance, until a trustworthy pattern develops. And it must be the first to recognize that pattern.

This is where Zduriencik and Wedge must balance out each other. Zduriencik can't stubbornly stick with some of his most important building blocks to try to justify this plan. And Wedge can't get too frustrated with patience.

Clearly, now is the time to go with the manager's gut, though. The Mariners plopped into the All-Star break with a 36-51 record. Parity defined the first half of this baseball season, especially in the American League, but the Mariners trail first-place Texas by 16 ½ games in the AL West — making them the deepest cellar dweller in baseball.

We focus on Smoak because his situation is most dire. He has had 1,214 career plate appearances. And he has gotten progressively worse.

The reasons are confounding. Is he a bad guy? No. Lazy? No. Immature? No. Insufficient talent? No. Still, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound potential slugger can't produce with his slow, long swing. And he's a rather lumbering dude to be only 25.

Should the Mariners give up on him? Nah, they've traded or disregarded too many young stars who have gone on to figure it out for another team. But the pendulum is starting to swing from absolute faith to pre-emptive hedging.

Smoak can't be an everyday starter right now. He either needs to be in a competition at first base with a healthy Mike Carp, or he needs to be in Tacoma trying to regain his confidence.

For Zduriencik, much of his credibility is tied to Smoak. The Lee trade looks like a disaster right now. Smoak could help Jack Z salvage it, but if Smoak isn't capable, Zduriencik can't be the last person to know. Sometimes, smart team-building is acknowledging a mistake and making amends as quickly as possible.

How bad is bad? Terminally bad? Or bad, but fixable? Another debacle of a season warrants such a conundrum.

Progress for the Mariners is currently measured on a scale of 0 to 0.00001. Time to get out the microscope and examine the incredible shrinking offense, starting with the underperforming first baseman.

Hope they've had their eyes checked lately.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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