Max Scherzer's professional debut was on June 7, 2007, a year after he'd been drafted by the Diamondbacks. It came against the Bakersfield Blaze. He struck out eight in five innings. Two times, third baseman Chris Davis was the victim.
Scherzer has since been traded by Arizona to Detroit, and he gets the Tigers' start tonight, but he won't face Davis.
Instead, Scherzer, who was the 11th pick in the 2006 draft, will face off tonight against the 11th pick in the 2008 draft, Justin Smoak.
Davis was hitless again last night but had some positive moments, drawing one of the club's two walks and seeing a team-high 26 pitches, and making a key defensive play as he typically does, digging Michael Young's running throw in the seventh with two outs and two on. But he did strike out twice, giving him 17 in 15 games (48 at-bats), and he wasn't hitting the ball with much authority or producing any runs (one RBI).
Meanwhile, Smoak was putting together great at-bat after great at-bat for Oklahoma City, hitting .300/.470/.540 in 50 at-bats with 16 walks (second most in the minor leagues, next to Conner Crumbliss, a 23-year-old playing in Low Class A) and eight strikeouts, acceptable left-right splits (the biggest difference this year being that he's drawn 14 walks and fanned just twice from the left side), and solid (if not Davis-level) defense. He was lifted in the eighth inning of last night's game with the RedHawks ahead, 7-4, having fouled a ball off his foot in the seventh, but everything checked out after the game and he's headed to Texas, where the club will give him everyday work right away in hopes that he can sustain the zone he's in.
Still, despite Davis's struggles and Smoak's locked-in-ness, I'm guessing this move wouldn't have happened this soon had the Rangers offense as a whole been in better shape. Ian Kinsler's return is probably still a week away at best, and maybe there were just too many holes in the lineup right now for the organization not to reward Smoak and give him an opportunity to give the club a boost offensively.
People will start writing baseball obituaries for Davis right away, but let's not get carried away. Smoak could hit .188 for a month - which is not only exactly what Davis is hitting now but also exactly what Mark Teixeira hit in his first month in the big leagues (actually starting 0 for 16 before collecting his first base hit) - and end up yielding his spot back to Davis if the team is in contention and Davis refinds his stroke like he did with the RedHawks last summer. Or Vladimir Guerrero could land on the disabled list at some point, which could open a door for both Smoak and Davis to hold down spots in the lineup.
I'm a Davis believer, and I expect him to have a very productive major league career - with someone - but this development serves as an extra reminder of why you never draft for "need" in baseball.
When Texas chose Smoak on June 5, 2008, Davis was less than two weeks into his AAA promotion, having hit his way out of the Texas League with a monstrous .333/.376/.618 two months. There was every reason not to pop the 21-year-old Smoak with the 22-year-old Davis barreling in toward the first base job that Ben Broussard and Chris Shelton were attempting to hold down. The Rangers could have taken the second player on their board, Georgia high school righthander Ethan Martin, and avoided the possible Davis-Smoak conundrum.
(And they would have selected Martin had this war room conversation ended differently while Texas was on the clock:
Daniels: We like Smoak and Martin. Smoak's an impact college hitter who will come quickly, but it will take millions above slot to sign him. Martin's a two-way high school player who we like as a pitcher.
Hicks: Who's the better player?
Daniels: We believe Smoak is.
Hicks: Take Smoak.)
Based on the early returns, Martin (who was the next pitcher taken, going to the Dodgers four picks later) would have been a solid add, too.
But five weeks from now, when Smoak is 100 at-bats into his big league career, Martin will probably be pitching against the Rangers' High A club when Inland Empire hosts Bakersfield for a May 26-29 series. Had Texas gone after Martin rather than Smoak, because of Davis's presence, they'd have another high-ceiling arm in their loaded system, which wouldn't be problematic - but it wouldn't help the Rangers in their effort to figure out how to address this first base issue today.
The Rangers didn't shy away from drafting Teixeira just because they had another young third baseman, Hank Blalock, a player they expected to build around for a decade. When the Cowboys decide to take a player like Dez Bryant, they have a pretty good idea how he's going to fit because in football, as in basketball, you get drafted and you are expected to contribute. Now, in most cases. Not so in baseball.
Things change. On the day that Smoak signed with Texas, right up against his August 15 deadline to do so, Davis had a big league OPS of .856 - and that was after a two-week slump brought it down from 1.018. The idea that the polished Smoak would get to Arlington 20 months later was surely less far-fetched at the time than the possibility that Davis would be optioned back to AAA in July 2009 and again in April 2010 (where he might see some time at third base, occasionally switching spots defensively with current RedHawks third baseman Matt Brown).
Things changed. And Texas was prepared.
Incidentally, Smoak will not be a free agent until after the 2016 season. Had he come up as few as four days ago, he would have earned a full year of big league service in 2010 (assuming he didn't return to the farm), setting things up for free agency after 2015 if not locked up long-term beforehand. This move speeds up Smoak's arbitration timetable by a year (he'll likely earn Super Two status after 2012, meaning he'll have four arbitration seasons rather than three), but that's a less significant issue than the free agency spectre.
The likely 40-man roster casualty would seem to be righthander Omar Poveda, who is out for the season and could be transferred to the 60-day disabled list to create the roster spot. The move would result in Poveda earning major league pay, which hasn't been the case until now, as he's been on option and thus earning the minor league side of his split contract.
I have more to say about the Smoak-Davis ramifications but not much time this morning. Still, it's not as if this is a story that will last for just one or two news cycles. This doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, and we may reach a point later this season at which the success of one of our young first basemen doesn't necessarily mean the other has failed. The objective right now is for Smoak to give the big league lineup a boost, and for Davis to get things back in order in Oklahoma City.
If both things happen, Texas will be in very good shape, one way or another.
But first things first. Treating Max Scherzer badly would be a good start.
Shakeup at first base
Not even after we Lost
Smoak Monster cometh
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(c) Jamey Newberg