Centerpiece of Cliff Lee deal happy to be in Seattle

This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of The Grand Salami.

By Mike Citron

23-year-old first baseman Justin Smoak was the key player the Mariners received when they traded Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe to the Texas Rangers on July 9th. The eleventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, Smoak first reached the Major Leagues in late April and was the Rangers’ starting first baseman at the time of the deal. The switch-hitter has been compared by scouts to slugging first basemen like Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, and Justin Morneau, players that regularly hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs a year. He also won the MVP Award at last year’s Baseball World Cup, hitting .291 with nine home runs and 22 RBI as the US won the championship over runner-up Cuba. Scouts say that Justin is a hard worker with a smooth swing and is an above average defender at first base. After making the deal with the Rangers, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik discussed Smoak with the Seattle media, saying “If this guy is what we think he is, he’ll be a cornerstone of this franchise going forward. We think he’s a quality player with a great approach at the plate. He’s big and lanky and has a great swing from both sides of the plate. We think he’s going to settle in and be a really good big-league player.” Smoak graciously sat down with The Grand Salami shortly after the trade to talk baseball.

GRAND SALAMI: You haven’t been in Seattle for long—how’s the adjustment period going for you?

JUSTIN SMOAK: It’s been great. Don (Wakamatsu) is a great guy. We’ve talked a few times. Everybody with the team seems like they’re glad to have me here and I’m glad to be here. It’ll take some time to build relationships with the guys here and to figure things out, but I’m looking forward to it.

GS: It must have been a bit crazy to be traded one day, fly to Seattle and be in the lineup for a new team the very next day.

SMOAK: The first couple of days after I got to Seattle was kind of like a rollercoaster ride for me, trying to figure everything out. At the same time as I’m trying to figure out a new city, new teammates, and a new coaching staff, I’m still trying to figure this league out. I haven’t been hitting as well as I’m capable of so far and I just have to focus on working hard to keep getting better. That’s one thing that I think I’ve done a really good job of—making sure I do the work I need to do.

GS: What do you think you’re going to add to this Mariners team?

SMOAK: The biggest thing for me is I love to win. People ask if I’m gonna hit a lot of home runs and they compare me to Mark Teixeira, but I don’t worry about those things. If you’re winning, everything else will figure itself out. Winning is the main goal for me.

GS: What’s it like to be traded so early in your career?

SMOAK: It was really a surprise. I was just drafted in ’08 and I was still learning that team and getting to know the people in the Rangers’ organization. I finally got to the point where I was getting to know people and their personalities and the next day I was gone. It was tough, and now I’ve got to do it all over again here in Seattle. It’s something to learn from. Hopefully, one day down the road, I’ll be able to look back on that experience as a good thing.

Smoak came to the M's along with pitchers Josh Leuke and Blake Beavan in exchange for pitchers Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe in 2010.

GS: How did you find out about the trade?

SMOAK: I was getting ready to play that night in Arlington and I got called into the office. JD (Rangers general manager Jon Daniels) and Wash (Rang­ers manager Ron Washington) were in the office with Clint Hurdle (Rangers hitting coach) and Dave Anderson (Rang­ers third base coach) and I knew something was going on. When they first told me about the trade, I was a little bit shocked, to be honest—you feel like when you get drafted by a team that you should be there playing for that team for a long time… that’s the team that took a chance on me, picking me in the first round. I was really shocked at first, but you’ve got to look to the future in this game and that’s what I’m doing.

GS: Was the trade a bit of a wake-up call for you concerning baseball as a business?

SMOAK: Yeah, a little bit. I’m the type of guy who would love to be in one place for a long time, but trades are a part of the business and this has been a learning experience for me.

GS: It must be flattering that you were the main player Seattle acquired in a trade for one of the top pitchers in baseball.

SMOAK: It’s exciting to know that the Mariners gave up a top pitcher like Cliff Lee to get me. Cliff Lee’s been a star in this game for the past few years.

GS: Is it tough making the adjustment from the minor leagues to the Major Leagues?

SMOAK: I’m just trying to slow the game down, and that can be hard to do, especially with the stadiums and the big crowds we play in front of. I’m really trying to just relax out there.

GS: As you mentioned, you’ve struggled a bit since coming up to the Majors in April. Do you think that a part of that is that you reached the big leagues less than two years after being drafted?

SMOAK: Last year was my first full year in professional baseball, and to get called up so early in the season was a bit of a surprise. But it’s a good thing. You’re going to have to go through these things at some point, so the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned. I know what I’m capable of doing and I know I can play at this level and I just have to keep working hard.

GS: What’s been the highlight of your baseball career so far?

SMOAK: Definitely playing for Team USA in the World Cup last year. I had played for the US in college, but last year we went over to Europe, got to play in Germany and Italy, and won the World Cup for our country. It was awesome and I really enjoyed the whole experience.

GS: Your alma mater, South Carolina, just won the 2010 National Championship in baseball. That must have been exciting for you.

SMOAK: I watched just about every bit of it on TV and I’m very excited for them and I know everybody in South Carolina is excited, too. To finally win a National Champ­­ion­- ship is a dream come true for every Gamecocks fan.

GS: You were teammates in high school with Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. It must be exciting that you’ve both reached the Majors so quickly.

SMOAK: It’s great that we’re in the same league and I get to see him now more than I have in the past couple of years. He’s a great player and somebody who I learned a lot from in high school. For us to both be in the Major Leagues at the same time, it’s not only great for us, but it’s great for everybody back home.

GS: Did you have a favorite team growing up or a favorite player?

SMOAK: Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, all we really watched was the Braves and they were the team I always pulled for. Playerwise, Chipper Jones was a guy I’ve always liked to watch play—it was great as a kid getting the opportunity to see him play a lot. Him being a switch-hitter, I always looked up to him. He’s a great player and one day he’ll probably be in the Hall of Fame.

GS: How did you come to be a switch-hitter?

SMOAK: I started switch-hitting when I was about 12 years old. I always threw left-handed, but I was a right-handed hitter. My dad wanted me to try hitting left-handed and I worked on it a lot when I was young. It finally clicked when I was in high school and I’ve been a switch-hitter ever since. It’s kind of interesting—some guys have trouble hitting from one side and I’ve got to work on getting better hitting from both sides… it’s tough, but it’s what I am and you have to put the work in.

GS: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t playing baseball?

SMOAK: I’ve always said if I wasn’t playing baseball, I’d probably be a professional bass fisherman. I love to hunt and fish. That’s my passion in the off-season and that’s what I like to do when I get the chance to get away from the field.

GS: I know you haven’t been in the Majors long, but do you have any favorite cities on the road yet?

SMOAK: It’s kind of hard to get a grasp of these cities the first time through; I haven’t really gotten a chance to go out and see much so far, but all of ’em have been great. When you’re in the big leagues and you get to go to big cities to play baseball, it’s a dream come true and I’m just excited to be a part of it.