Last September the A’s were wrapping up a second half free-fall, one which saw them squander their divisional lead and nearly their grip on the second Wild Card spot. In the middle of that month the Texas Rangers began a series in Oakland, and they were merely playing out the string. Their most successful manager in team history, Ron Washington, had earlier resigned over some personal issues. So interim skipper Tim Bogar was at the helm to close out the season, which was a very disappointing one for Texas.
The funny thing about teams with nothing to lose is that they often play quite well. The Rangers were under no pressure and held no lofty expectations at that point, and they were taking a look at some of their September call-ups and blooding them with major league games. One of those young players was outfielder Jake Smolinski, who had taken a winding path to become a Ranger. Originally drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2007 draft by the Washington Nationals, he was traded to the Marlins the very next year in a deal which brought Josh Willingham to D.C. After five years in Florida’s minor league system, he was not offered a contract after the 2013 season, as his numbers at AAA-New Orleans weren’t eye-popping. Smolinski hit .258 with nine home runs and 31 RBI for the Zephyrs that season, and the Marlins weren’t impressed.
Granted free agency for the first time, Texas snapped him up and Smolinski immediately started producing in the Rangers chain. He began last season at AA-Frisco but was then promoted to AAA-Round Rock, before earning a call up to the bigs. He made his major league debut late with the Rangers as Texas wanted to see how he would respond to the bright lights of MLB. Under the loose atmosphere of Bogar (who remarkably did not get the full-time gig) and a situation where wins weren’t important, Smolinski thrived. I remember watching him hit his first major league home run off of Scott Kazmir on the 17th of September, a game which the Rangers won, 6-3. And Smolinski just kept on hitting, finishing his 24-game job interview with a line of .349, with three home runs and 12 RBI. I recall remarking to a friend at the time, “I wish we had a young outfielder like that in our system.”
I didn’t have to wait too long to get my wish, and it was the real McCoy himself. Texas cut Smolinski on June 21 after a disappointing stint in which he hit only .133 with one home run in 35 games. Where had it all gone wrong? Smolinski had made the Rangers’ Opening Day roster. They had big plans for him. But it’s amazing how fast an organization can sour on a player. A’s first baseman Ike Davis, who was once deemed “untradable” with the Mets, told me at FanFest in January that New York gave up on him after he hurt his knee. So as with Smolinski, the Rangers had seen enough.
But the impression Smolinski left on me, when I had seen him with my own eyes at the Coliseum, was that he was a hitting machine. That obviously was the same one he left upon A’s management, who quickly signed him and sent him to AAA-Nashville. Smolinski took advantage of the opportunity by batting a ludicrous .432 in 13 games. Knowing the A’s abject failure this season vs. left-handed pitching, Smolinski got the call-up from Billy Beane on Monday and made his debut last night. He got a hit, a walk, and scored a run off of CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium in the A’s 5-4 loss, which was not a bad debut at all.
How long Smolinski lasts will be up to him. Billy Burns has already shown that Oakland will change their plans if you’re too good to be removed from the lineup. And Smolinski is with the right team, one which scours the waiver wire looking for cheap labor. He’s got a lot to prove at this level and I hope he can do it. It would be nice to see Texas regret their hasty decision. Plus, as I mentioned, the A’s need a lot of help facing southpaw pitchers.