Justin Smoak is a big leaguer.

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Max Scherzer’s
professional debut was on June 7, 2007, a year after he’d been drafted by the
Diamondbacks.  It came against the Bakersfield
Blaze.  He struck out eight in five
innings.  Two times, third baseman Chris
Davis was the victim.


Scherzer has since been
traded by Arizona to Detroit, and he gets the Tigers’ start tonight, but he won’t
face Davis.


Instead, Scherzer,
who was the 11th pick in the 2006 draft, will face off tonight against
the 11th pick in the 2008 draft, Justin Smoak.


Davis was hitless
again last night but had some positive moments, drawing one of the club’s two walks
and seeing a team-high 26 pitches, and making a key defensive play as he
typically does, digging Michael Young’s running throw in the seventh with two
outs and two on.  But he did strike out
twice, giving him 17 in 15 games (48 at-bats), and he wasn’t hitting the ball with
much authority or producing any runs (one RBI). 


Meanwhile, Smoak was
putting together great at-bat after great at-bat for Oklahoma City, hitting .300/.470/.540
in 50 at-bats with 16 walks (second most in the minor leagues, next to Conner
Crumbliss, a 23-year-old playing in Low Class A) and eight strikeouts, acceptable
left-right splits (the biggest difference this year being that he’s drawn 14
walks and fanned just twice from the left side), and solid (if not Davis-level)
defense.  He was lifted in the eighth
inning of last night’s game with the RedHawks ahead, 7-4, having fouled a ball
off his foot in the seventh, but everything checked out after the game and he’s
headed to Texas, where the club will give him everyday work right away in hopes
that he can sustain the zone he’s in.


Still, despite Davis’s
struggles and Smoak’s locked-in-ness, I’m guessing this move wouldn’t have
happened this soon had the Rangers offense as a whole been in better
shape.  Ian Kinsler’s return is probably
still a week away at best, and maybe there were just too many holes in the lineup
right now for the organization not to reward Smoak and give him an opportunity
to give the club a boost offensively.


People will start
writing baseball obituaries for Davis right away, but let’s not get carried
away.  Smoak could hit .188 for a month –
which is not only exactly what Davis is hitting now but also exactly what Mark
Teixeira hit in his first month in the big leagues (actually starting 0 for 16
before collecting his first base hit) – and end up yielding his spot back to
Davis if the team is in contention and Davis refinds his stroke like he did
with the RedHawks last summer.  Or Vladimir
Guerrero could land on the disabled list at some point, which could open a door
for both Smoak and Davis to hold down spots in the lineup.


I’m a Davis believer,
and I expect him to have a very productive major league career – with someone –
but this development serves as an extra reminder of why you never draft for “need”
in baseball. 


When Texas chose Smoak on June 5, 2008, Davis was less than
two weeks into his AAA promotion, having hit his way out of the Texas League with
a monstrous .333/.376/.618 two months.  There
was every reason not to pop the 21-year-old Smoak with the 22-year-old Davis
barreling in toward the first base job that Ben Broussard and Chris Shelton
were attempting to hold down.  The
Rangers could have taken the second player on their board, Georgia high school
righthander Ethan Martin, and avoided the possible Davis-Smoak conundrum.


(And they would have selected Martin had this war room conversation
ended differently while Texas was on the clock:


Daniels: We like Smoak and Martin.  Smoak’s an impact college hitter who will
come quickly, but it will take millions above slot to sign him.  Martin’s a two-way high school player who we
like as a pitcher.


Hicks: Who’s the better player?


Daniels: We believe Smoak is.


Hicks: Take Smoak.)


Based on the early returns, Martin (who was the next pitcher
taken, going to the Dodgers four picks later) would have been a solid add, too. 


But five weeks from now, when Smoak is 100 at-bats into his
big league career, Martin will probably be pitching against the Rangers’ High A
club when Inland Empire hosts Bakersfield for a May 26-29 series.  Had Texas gone after Martin rather than Smoak,
because of Davis’s presence, they’d have another high-ceiling arm in their
loaded system, which wouldn’t be problematic – but it wouldn’t help the Rangers
in their effort to figure out how to address this first base issue today.


The Rangers didn’t shy away from drafting Teixeira just
because they had another young third baseman, Hank Blalock, a player they
expected to build around for a decade. 
When the Cowboys decide to take a player like Dez Bryant, they have a
pretty good idea how he’s going to fit because in football, as in basketball,
you get drafted and you are expected to contribute.  Now, in most cases.  Not so in baseball. 


Things change.  On the
day that Smoak signed with Texas, right up against his August 15 deadline to do
so, Davis had a big league OPS of .856 – and that was after a two-week slump brought
it down from 1.018.  The idea that the
polished Smoak would get to Arlington 20 months later was surely less far-fetched
at the time than the possibility that Davis would be optioned back to AAA in
July 2009 and again in April 2010 (where he might see some time at third base, occasionally
switching spots defensively with current RedHawks third baseman Matt Brown). 


Things changed.  And Texas
was prepared.


Incidentally, Smoak will not be a free agent until after the
2016 season.  Had he come up as few as
four days ago, he would have earned a full year of big league service in 2010 (assuming
he didn’t return to the farm), setting things up for free agency after 2015 if
not locked up long-term beforehand.  This
move speeds up Smoak’s arbitration timetable by a year (he’ll likely earn Super
Two status after 2012, meaning he’ll have four arbitration seasons rather than
three), but that’s a less significant issue than the free agency spectre.


The likely 40-man roster casualty would seem to be righthander
Omar Poveda, who is out for the season and could be transferred to the 60-day
disabled list to create the roster spot. 
The move would result in Poveda earning major league pay, which hasn’t been
the case until now, as he’s been on option and thus earning the minor league
side of his split contract.


I have more to say about the Smoak-Davis ramifications but
not much time this morning.  Still, it’s
not as if this is a story that will last for just one or two news cycles.  This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, and
we may reach a point later this season at which the success of one of our young
first basemen doesn’t necessarily mean the other has failed.  The objective right now is for Smoak to give the
big league lineup a boost, and for Davis to get things back in order in Oklahoma


If both things happen, Texas will be in very good shape, one
way or another.


But first things first. 
Treating Max Scherzer badly would be a good start.


Shakeup at first

Not even after
we Lost

Smoak Monster





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(c) Jamey Newberg




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