- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PEORIA, Ariz. -- The sense of optimism in the Seattle Mariners' camp is undeniable. Maybe it’s the arrival of Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, veteran hitters who bring welcome stability to the middle of the batting order. Felix Hernandez is around for the long haul with his new $175 million contract, and the Mariners have a wave of impressive young starters behind him. Two of them, roommates Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer, come equipped with dominant stuff and platinum hair.
The two former first-round picks and mega-prospects were counted on to lead the Mariners out of the offensive wilderness in 2012, but a combination of mechanical problems, waning confidence and (in Ackley’s case) injuries put a crimp in their production. Ackley is a North Carolina Tar Heel and Smoak a South Carolina Gamecock, but they were bonded by something other than state pride and good-natured Carolina trash talk last summer.
Ackley, 25, hit .226 with a .622 OPS and 124 strikeouts. After the Mariners chose him second overall behind a guy named Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft, scouts raved about his fluid swing and anointed him a batting champion in waiting. He wound up receiving an education in patience and the inevitability of learning curves. At times like this, it pays to know your history.
“You look at some of the great hitters in the game, and they’ve had struggles,’’ Ackley said. “This is Major League Baseball. We’re facing guys who are the best pitchers in the world every single day. It’s not like you go out there and yawn and hit .300-plus. You have to go out there and work. Your swing has to be right and things have to be lined up. Last year, they weren’t.’’
Smoak, who turned 26 in December, has been tested repeatedly since Texas picked him 11th overall in the 2008 draft. He was rushed to the big leagues by the Rangers with barely 500 minor league plate appearances on his résumé in 2010. Then he had to deal with an abundance of hype after Seattle acquired him as the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade in July of that year.
Last season was a fiasco from Opening Day. Smoak hit .200 in April, and followed up with monthly batting averages of .255, .147, .134 and .196 from May through August. When he lapsed into an 0-for-19 funk in late July and the Mariners sent him to Triple-A Tacoma for a refresher course, it was your basic mercy demotion.
In late June, Dave Cameron of the USS Mariner website threw up his hands and decreed that it was time for the Mariners to go in a different direction. When you’re expected to be a team’s long-term answer at first base and people suddenly start throwing around names like Travis Lee, Greg Colbrunn, John Mabry and Brad Fullmer, it’s not a good sign.
But just when the Smoak-as-bust storyline began to reach a crescendo, it veered in a different direction. In Seattle’s final 27 games, Smoak hit .341 with a .423 on-base percentage and a .571 slugging percentage. He was so hot it was a shame the season had to end. And the Mariners were obliged to return to spring training with Smoak at first base.
“For me, it’s just confidence and being relaxed,’’ Smoak said. “You see the ball better, and you take pitches you shouldn’t swing at and swing at pitches you want to hit. Everybody says you see it like a beach ball when hot, but you’re just relaxed. That’s what allows you to do that stuff.’’
Both players devoted a healthy chunk of the winter to introspection and self-improvement. Ackley, in particular, dedicated himself to making changes in his setup and his approach. In a nutshell, he's trying to make better use of his legs and his core and get away from doing everything with his hands. Ackley says he had “no separation’’ in his swing last season, and was basically waving at the ball with his arms. He also started his swing so early, pitchers routinely fooled him with off-speed stuff and sliders in the dirt.
Although Ackley refuses to use injuries as an excuse, he was clearly hindered by bone spurs in his left ankle. He had the spurs removed in October, and he feels much more comfortable with his foundation this spring.
“My swing was in a bad place aside from the foot injury,’’ Ackley said. “It’s just bad habits. Things start to go south, so you start searching for things and you can’t really figure anything out. You’re kind of lost.’’
Smoak’s natural gift -- the ability to hit from both sides of the plate -- can be a burden as well as a blessing. For years, when Mark Teixeira struggled in April and May, he reminded people that it’s a challenge to maintain swings from both sides of the plate. Smoak is a natural righty hitter, and his biggest challenge is trying to keep his swing compact from the left side. He’s a big dude at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, so that gives major league pitchers more holes to exploit.
The FanGraphs numbers testify to Smoak’s status as a magnet for junk. He saw curveballs 12.7 percent of the time -- the 21st-highest ratio in baseball. Pitchers threw Smoak changeups 15 percent of the time. Among big league hitters, only Carlos Santana, Jose Reyes, Josh Hamilton, Morales, Asdrubal Cabrera and Ben Zobrist saw a higher percentage of changeups.
While Morse and Morales will be counted on to do the heavy lifting in the middle of Seattle’s lineup, the addition of veterans Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay could pay subtler benefits. As several Mariners people have observed, a calming word here and a subtle observation there might help the kids iron out the rough spots and reduce the length and the frequency of slumps. Ichiro Suzuki enjoyed a memorable 12-year run in Seattle and will go down as one of the franchise’s all-time greats, but he was more an island unto himself than the mentoring type. The new guys should help Ackley, Smoak, Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager and all of Seattle’s young players with their shared perspective.
“They’ve been to the playoffs,’’ Ackley said. “They’ve been on the big stage and had their struggles. They’ve been through it all. Anytime you can have conversations with a guy like that, who’s been in the dumps or been on the highest level, I think it’s huge.’’
Ibanez, 40, broke into the majors on a Ken Griffey Jr.-Edgar Martinez-Jay Buhner-led powerhouse in Seattle in 1996. He enjoyed his best seasons between age 33 and 37, when he was able to put his accumulated knowledge of pitchers and baseball’s mind games to best use. As Ibanez nears the end of the line, he is happy to pass along his collected wisdom to Seattle's young tandem.
“There’s a lot of potential there,’’ Ibanez said. “They’re good kids, too. Both of them are hard workers. At this level, at least 90 percent of the game is mental. It becomes all about having the belief, the drive and the will to succeed. As long as they have that, which I believe they do, they’re going to be fine.’’
Spring training numbers don’t mean much, but the Mariners had to like it when Smoak, Bay and Mike Jacobs hit two-run homers against San Diego in Seattle's Cactus League opener Saturday. Smoak, like Ackley, is ready to take the lessons of 2012 and apply them toward a more productive 2013.
“Your entire life, you’ve never failed at anything baseball-wise,’’ Smoak said. “Then I get here, and the last 2½ years have not been great for me. I know I’m capable of doing a lot better. It’s something that makes you work even harder to get to where you want to be."