Despite struggles, ex-Stratford, USC star Justin Smoak ‘more confident than ever’

Justin Smoak hit .341 over his final 27 games with the Seattle Mariners last season.

A former first-round draft pick with a .223 career batting average is going to hear it from everybody, Justin Smoak has learned.

Bloggers, beat writers, fans, even the popular Seattle bar that pegged the bargain price of Monday night pints of draft beer to Smoak’s average.

“I know how it works,” chuckles Smoak, the former Stratford High School and University of South Carolina baseball star. “Especially when you are a first-round pick and a big prospect guy. Everybody expects you to have success from Day 1. And when you don’t …”

And when you don’t, you enter your fourth season in Major League Baseball greeted by headlines like “Time is now for Smoak to break through.”

Smoak, the 11th overall pick in the 2008 MLB draft after an All-America career at USC, knows better than anybody how important the 2013 season could be to his career.

But after taking a few rounds of batting practice with The Citadel’s baseball team last week, the 6-4, 230-pound Mariners first baseman said he’s never felt better entering a pro season.

“Last year, I went through a lot,” said Smoak, who batted .217 with 19 home runs and 51 runs batted in for Seattle in 2012. “I made a lot of adjustments at the plate. But the way I finished off the season was a big confidence-builder.

“Right now, with the work I’ve done this offseason, this is the most confident I’ve been going into camp.”

For Citadel coach Fred Jordan, who has known Smoak since he was a boy, the question of how to view Smoak’s career thus far is a matter of perspective.

For example, Smoak’s 162-game average for his three MLB years breaks down to a .223 batting average with 21 homers and 70 RBIs. His high school teammate, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, has a 162-game average of .260 with 21 homers and 79 RBIs for four seasons.

Not a huge difference, and yet Smoak is viewed as a disappointment, and Wieters is a two-time all-star.

“It’s been tough on Justin,” said Jordan. “He’s always had success at such a high level. But he’ll be better in the long run because he has, in his opinion, struggled a little bit. I think he’s done OK.”

Smoak was just 23 and had just 170 minor-league games — barely more than one full season — behind him when the Rangers brought him to the big leagues in 2010.

Then came more changes — a trade to the Mariners in 2010 and the death of his father, Keith, in 2011. That’s a lot to handle while also learning to hit big-league pitching.

“I got thrown into it at a young age, when I was still learning,” said Smoak, now 26. “I’m still learning to this day. But I feel like with where I am today, I have a better grasp on where I’m at and what I have to do to get ready for a season.”

Smoak spent part of each of the last two seasons in the minors, working on his swing after struggling in the Show.

But after a late-season callup from Tacoma last year, Smoak hit .341 over the final 27 games, fueling the confidence of Mariners manager Eric Wedge.

“I’ve made it very clear I feel strong about Justin Smoak and what his abilities are,” Wedge told reporters recently. “I have every anticipation he’s going to be our first baseman this year. Now, if he shows us something different, so be it. But he’s coming in (to spring training) as our first baseman, and I expect him to take that and run with it.”

Even so, the Mariners have made some moves, bringing in veteran hitters such as Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez and bringing in the fences at spacious Safeco Field.

For his part, Smoak has been working out at Progressive Fitness in West Ashley, putting on nine pounds of muscle while cutting body fat.

Smoak relishes his time in the Lowcountry. His wife, Kristin, accompanies him on the road during the season, but they are looking for a house to buy in the Charleston area.

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