This article is part of our John Sickels' Column series.
I'm getting frequent questions about Texas Rangers first base prospect Justin Smoak. I just finished watching him play three games for Triple-A Oklahoma City this weekend, so this is a perfect time for a full profile.
Justin Smoak was a high school star in Goose Creek, South Carolina, where he was a teammate of Matt Wieters. He was drafted in the 15th round in 2005 by Oakland, but would have gone much higher were it not for signability concerns. As expected at the time, he went to college at South Carolina, where he thrived for the Gamecocks, hitting .303/.407/.586 as a freshman, .315/.434/.631 as a sophomore, and .383/.505/.757 at a junior. He became South Carolina's all-time leaders in walks and RBI, demonstrating excellent plate discipline to go with his switch-hitting power. He also played very well in the 2006 Cape Cod League, earning MVP honors. Smoak was drafted in the first round in '08, 11th overall; frankly I thought that was surprisingly low, and felt he was worthy of going as high as third overall. His pro debut went very well in the Midwest League last year (.304/.355/.518 in 14 games for Clinton). His '09 season has been one of ups-and-downs.
TRADITIONAL SCOUTING REPORT
Smoak is 6-4, 220 pounds, a left-handed thrower and a switch-hitter, born December 5th, 1986. He's large and muscular, but has a good measure of athleticism and quickness with his hands. His speed is average to below average and might get pretty bad as he ages, but while he is no stealing threat, he's fundamentally sound. In college, he was rated as a potential Gold Glove caliber defender, and indeed he showed good agility and strong throw-scooping ability in the games I saw him play. Offensively, Smoak has plus power potential to all fields, and excellent strike zone judgment. His swing will get long every now and then, giving him occasional vulnerability to fastballs inside or breaking stuff away, but his plate discipline helps compensate for this, and he shows the ability to make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat, and even from pitch-to-pitch. He hasn't fully unleashed his home run power yet against pro pitching, but I think that will come next year. Smoak's production this year may have been hampered by an oblique injury, and while initially overmatched in Triple-A, he looked good against Salt Lake this weekend, going 6-for-10 with two doubles and three walks.
Smoak was very effective against Double-A pitching earlier this spring, hitting .328/.449/.481 for Frisco in the Texas League, with 39 walks and 35 strikeouts in 183 at-bats. Note the fact that he had more walks than strikeouts, always an excellent sign, and that the strikeout rate itself is reasonably low. Promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City in July, he got off to a slow start with a .219/.306/.333 month, though he was still probably shaking off effects of the oblique strain. He's heated up in August, hitting .291/.426/.436 this month, with 13 walks and 10 strikeouts in 15 games. Smoak's home run production has been less than expected this year, but given his size, strength, command of the strike zone, and past track record in college and the Cape Cod League, I'm very confident that the home runs will come.
FANTASY INVESTMENT VALUE
It remains to be seen exactly how the Rangers when and how the Rangers will get him into the lineup, but Smoak is certainly one of the elite prospects in the game. He should produce a high OBP with a good batting average, power, and strong defense at first base. He was frequently compared to Mark Teixeira in college. Teixeira at the same stage in his career was producing more home power than Smoak currently is, and Smoak may have a bit less home run power at his peak than Teixeira does. I want to see how Smoak does further removed from the oblique strain, but you don't have to be as good as Teixeira to be a terrific player.
Article first appeared 8/19/09