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What Happened To Justin Smoak?

He was the main piece in the deal for Cliff Lee two years ago, but instead of becoming a franchise player in Seattle, he's fighting for a job.

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Every June, Major League Baseball holds the most under-covered draft in major American professional sports.

The lack of coverage isn't surprising though. Over 50 rounds, 1500 players are taken. Most players don't even sign with the team that drafted them. This particular draft only accounts for American players as well, not the countless Latin American players who can sign with teams at 16-years-old.

With only 750 roster spots in the big leagues, most of these players eventually fade into obscurity. So it's not shocking when a 39th rounder calls it quits after bouncing around the minors for a year or two.

More concerning, however, is when a highly-touted first round draft pick becomes a major league bust. And there really isn't a better example today than former Texas Rangers prospect, and current Seattle Mariner, Justin Smoak.

Smoak was regarded as one of the top five prospects of the 2008 Draft. He was said to be one of the best defensive first basemen in his class and could hit for power and average from both sides of the plate. He was compared to players like Mark Teixeira and Chipper Jones.

Due to fear of his agent asking for too large of a contract, Smoak fell to the 11th pick of the draft. It was a seeming windfall for the Texas Rangers.

In his first full year in the minors, Smoak hit .290 and had an OPS of .853. Entering the 2010 season, Smoak was considered one of the top prospects in baseball. It looked like the Rangers had a superstar in waiting.

He got called up to the show on April 22, 2010 and made his debut the following night. In his first four games, Smoak walked at least once in each game, setting a franchise record while displaying an encouraging amount of patience at the plate. He smacked his first home run on April 29 and his first right-handed home run four days later.

But Smoak would set another franchise record on June 13th, when he became the first Ranger to strike out five times in a game. A performance like that from a 23-year-old isn't shocking, but perhaps it was enough for the Rangers to consider this future superstar a tradable commodity.

And trade him they would.

Less than a month after his record-setting "platinum sombrero" performance, the Rangers dealt Smoak to the Seattle Mariners for Cliff Lee. The move would eventually propel Texas to their first World Series appearance.

While Cliff Lee was pitching the Rangers to a Pennant, Smoak was back in the minors. He would eventually be called up again on September 18 and hit .340 with three home runs in Seattle's final 14 games. It looked like the Rangers may have traded a future star for a rent-a-player.

However, 2011, Smoak's first full year in the majors, was nothing short of a disappointment. In 123 games, he hit a dismal .234. While he did show some power potential with 24 doubles and 15 home runs, his batting average was nowhere near what many projected.

The 2012 season would have to be Smoak's redemption. Unfortunately for Seattle fans, it got even worse. Smoak is currently hitting .202, one bad game away from dipping below the Mendoza Line. He was hitting .189 in July when Seattle sent him back to the minors. Eventually, Smoak returned to the bigs, but only after an injury to first baseman Mike Carp.

So why did Smoak bust?

Answer: Who knows?

But there is a reason 1500 players are drafted every year by only 30 teams: everyone can't hit major league pitching and everyone can't get major league hitters out. That's why baseball has a far more expansive farm system than any other major sport. Each team has at least four minor league affiliates, and that doesn't include the Latin American academies or Asian leagues.

A great high school or college player isn't necessarily going to translate that talent to the major leagues. Nobody knows why exactly. Maybe he can't hit the curve or catch up to the fastball. Or perhaps he can throw 95mph, but can't locate it or develop complimentary pitches. It's just the way it is.

There are plenty of players from the 2008 first round who are performing in the majors: Buster Posey (5th pick), Lance Lynn (39), Wade Miley (43), Brett Lawrie (16), Jemile Weeks (12), Yonder Alonso (7).

There are also a few who showed some potential, but have faded since: Eric Hosmer (3), Ike Davis (18), Brian Matusz (4), Daniel Schlereth (26).

But there are also 35 other first rounders from 2008 that you've never even heard of.

Nobody knows what the Rangers were thinking when they decided Smoak was worth dealing. Maybe it was the five strikeout game, or maybe it was the fact they had two other youngsters at first base (Chris Davis and Mitch Moreland).

More than likely it was a combination of both. But whatever the case may be, Texas saw something that Seattle didn't.

To the Rangers, dealing this prospect was worth a World Series appearance. And in hindsight, it looks like it was.

Earlier this summer, Texas refused to give up third/first base prospect Mike Olt for a frontline starter. The Rangers were in almost the exact same situation as 2010: in need of an ace for a postseason run.

But Olt didn't make his debut until after the trade deadline, so the Rangers really hadn't seen what he could do against big league pitching. They also have an aging Beltre with no other prospect waiting in the wings. Perhaps that was the difference this time around.

The Rangers may in fact have a star in the making. On the other hand, maybe they missed an opportunity to sell high.

Only time will tell. But until then, your guess is as good as mine.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.