One of the problems with trading a proven star player for prospects is that the prospects may not pan out. A trade that looks great at the time that it was consummated can turn out to be an unmitigated disaster a couple of years later, depending on how the prospects turn out. For the Seattle Mariners, their trade with the Texas Rangers where they moved Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matt Lawson is beginning to look like a disaster for Seattle.
Smoak, in particular, has been a disappointment. Rated as the 23rd prospect in baseball prior to the 2009 season, he rose up the rankings to 13th before 2010 when he made his major league debut. That season, split between Texas and Seattle, was a struggle, as Smoak posted a combined batting line of .218/.307/.371 with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs. While it was reasonable to expect an adjustment period, Smoak struggled with plate discipline. After posting a strikeout to walk of roughly one to one, Smoak struck out 91 times against 48 walks. His K/BB rate plummeted after the trade, as he struck out 24 times against 8 walks.
In 2011, Smoak took a step forward, albeit a small one. His batting line improved to .234/.323/.396, while he hit 15 home runs and provided 55 RBIs. His strikeout to walk rate also improved, as he struck out 105 times against 55 walks. His numbers in September that year were excellent, as he produced a .301/.354/.438 batting line with 3 home runs and 11 RBIs in 73 at bats. He also had 11 walks and 20 strikeouts during that time, as he appeared to have become a bit more selective. It appeared as though Smoak was making progress, albeit slight.
Then came the 2012 season, which was a disaster. Instead of building upon his somewhat successful 2011, Smoak regressed horribly, to the point where he was exiled to AAA for approximately four weeks. Overall, he produced a thoroughly unimpressive .217/.290/.364 batting line, with 19 home runs and 51 RBIs. In fact, his lack of production may have been one of the primary factors in the mariners offseason acquisitions of Kendry Morales and Jason Bay. With those players, as well as Jesus Montero and Mike Carp already on the roster, there may not be much of an opportunity for Smoak going forward.
Although the Mariners are looking to acquire offense, they presently have a logjam at first base/DH with Smoak, Morales, Montero, and Carp. Even with Montero getting some time behind the plate, and Carp spending some time in the outfield, Smoak is unlikely to get many opportunities. Although he has been mediocre or worse over his major league career, he was considered a top prospect not that long ago. Some team may be willing to take a chance that all Smoak needs is a change of scenery and approach.
Such a team may be the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are definitely not adverse to giving former top prospects a chance to see if they can rediscover their form and become productive. And they are certainly not against giving players an opportunity that may not receive elsewhere. Coincidentally, the Rays also happen to have a possible opening at either first or at designated hitter, even with their signing of James Loney.
While there may be a couple of other teams possibly interested in Smoak, the Mariners may not be able to get much back for a player without a sustained track record of success at the major league level. Even though the Rays may not be able to provide any immediate offensive upgrades to the Mariners, a couple of mid-level prospects may be sufficient to procure Smoak. Should the Mariners want pitching depth, the Rays would likely be one of the teams that could provide an adequate return.
At this point in time, Justin Smoak is at a career crossroads. He is dangerously close to becoming similar to Matt LaPorta, a highly touted prospect considered the centerpiece in a trade for an ace pitcher that was unable to live up to his billing. However, there is still the chance with Smoak that he can deliver on his initial status as a top prospect, and the Rays may be the team willing to give him that shot.