OAKLAND -- Ever since the Rangers made Justin Smoak their first pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, there has been speculation that he could be in the Major Leagues as early as a September callup this season. That hasn't been the case. He is not with the Rangers. In fact, he is not even in the country. He's on some European vacation and apparently having a grand time. Smoak has been tearing it up for Team USA in the International Baseball Federation World Cup in Italy. Smoak has set an American record with nine home runs and Team USA opened the final round with a 6-3 victory over Venezuela on Tuesday. The United States is 9-1 in the tournament and Smoak has three two-homer games.
"It's been great," Smoak said by e-mail. "Being over here and playing in Italy and Germany has been a lot of fun. Having success over here has been good because we have been winning games and you always want to do whatever it takes to win games." The World Cup is proving to be a high-level venue for Smoak to finish an interesting season on a high note. He has had both highs and lows this season, but the World Cup may be showing that his confidence is back, his mechanics are sound, and his bat is lethal. "It's encouraging," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "He continues to perform at various levels and against different competition. This is a big stage, representing your country." Smoak, who was with the Rangers in Spring Training, started the season at Double-A Frisco and hit .328 with six home runs and 29 RBIs in 50 games. A rib cage injury set him back in midseason and kept him from participating in the Futures Game during the All-Star break. He was promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City and hit just .219 in July with a .306 on-base percentage. But he improved that to .267 with a .413 on-base percentage in August. "In Spring Training, you could tell he is a heck of a hitter and everything you look for," said Mike Boulanger, the Rangers' Minor League hitting coordinator. "But as good as he was, we knew he had some holes in his swing and some adjustments that he needed to make. He was able to get away with some stuff at Frisco that he couldn't at Oklahoma City." Basically, Smoak was jumping out after pitches rather keeping his weight back and waiting on the pitch. That made him susceptible to getting pounded inside by fastballs and Triple-A pitchers took advantage of that before Smoak learned to adjust. When he did, the results started to pick up at Triple-A. "The numbers don't reflect the adjustments he made. When the season was over, he got back to where he should be. I'm glad he went through that. There is still going to be a learning curve at the Major League level, but he shortened that by going through that. Experience is the best teacher." Smoak will be back with the Rangers in big league camp this spring. He'll be there on a non-roster invitation since he doesn't have to be placed on the Major League roster for two more years. But it's clear the Rangers expect him to be ready long before that. "I think you'll see him in big league camp," Daniels said. "Depending on how things shake out in the offseason, at some point, he'll get an opportunity. I don't think we're going to go in the year counting on him right away, but we know he could be an option if he continues to improve and we have a need." Smoak is a first baseman, a position currently occupied by Chris Davis at the Major League level. Both figure prominently in the Rangers' future, although it's clear Davis is regarded as the superior defensive player. Smoak is still working on that part of his game. "He's adequate," Oklahoma City manager Bobby Jones said. "He doesn't have much foot speed, but anything hit to him he catches. He does a good job turning the double play, making good throws. He's not a liability over there." The Rangers need his bat more than anything. He is the best offensive prospect in a farm system that is strong on pitching but a little short on promising bats. His performance in Italy against tough international competition is a good sign for the Rangers. "It has helped," Smoak said. "I'm trying to do the same thing here that I did this year, and that is trying to get better day in and day out."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.