SAN FRANCISCO – Jake Smolinski has learned the importance of seizing an opportunity when it comes his way.
The A’s outfielder, claimed off waivers from Texas five weeks ago and promoted earlier this month, has gotten increased playing time lately and is finding ways to make an impact.
He’s made several highlight-worthy plays at the corner outfield spots, including two in right field on Saturday against the Giants. Acquired to provide right-handed pop against lefties, Smolinksi is 8-for-20 (.400) with seven RBI in nine games, including the first multi-homer game of his career July 9 against Minnesota.
“I’ve just been having a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a great group of guys here, a great coaching staff.”
If he keeps it up, he could find a home with the A’s. That would be quite a development considering the 26-year-old Smolinski has never comfortably grown roots during his professional career.
Drafted in the second round by the Nationals in 2007 out of Boylan Catholic High School (Ill.), he was traded to the Marlins following the 2008 season. The next five years brought a slow climb up the ladder of Miami’s system. Smolinski was shifted to third base, then back to the outfield. Some thought he didn’t quite have the glove for third or the power to be a corner outfielder. Smolinski always has found a way to get on base, but in five seasons with Miami’s organization, Smolinski never hit higher than .283 or cracked double digits in homers.
As fellow Marlins outfield prospects Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick made their way toward the majors, Smolinski’s path wasn’t so smooth. Assorted injuries – hamstrings, fingers, a concussion -- didn’t help his cause either.
“There were times you wonder, ‘Am I ever going to make it?’ Smolinski said. “I got discouraged a few times, but ultimately I never gave up. I kept plugging away and an opportunity opened up last year with Texas, and I tried to make the most of it.”
He signed a minor league deal with the Rangers in 2014 and finally made his major league debut last July after seven-plus professional seasons. He set a Rangers record with eight hits in his first four games and hit .349 with three homers and 12 RBI in 24 games total last year, missing almost two months with a fractured left foot.
He struggled this season, hitting .133 in 35 games and was designated for assignment in June. The A’s snatched him off waivers.
Smolinski has impressed manager Bob Melvin with his overall athleticism. He had never played at AT&T Park before this weekend, but expertly handled a carom off the tricky right field wall Saturday and made a strong throw to second to nail Brandon Crawford on what looked like a sure double off the bat.
“That’s a tough right field to play too,” Melvin said. “He’s getting great reads on it whatever position he’s playing.”
The athleticism shouldn’t be a shocker. Smolinski, listed at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, was a high school quarterback who spent time running the wing-T and option offenses. He wasn’t afraid to take a pounding. When it became clear he could be a high draft pick in baseball, people encouraged him to give up football, but he said he loved the sport too much.
Now he’s hoping to find his niche with Oakland. And with right fielder Josh Reddick’s name surfacing in occasional trade rumors, were the A’s to pull the trigger on a deal involving the former Gold Glover, they could feel good about having a capable outfield defender on reserve in Smolinski.
His long path to the majors hits home with A’s catcher Stephen Vogt. Vogt spent most of six seasons in Tampa Bay’s organization before getting his first big league call-up. He got to know Smolinski through many games spent in opposing minor league dugouts.
“I’ve known Jake since 2010,” Vogt said. “To see him getting his chance is awesome. He’s been a great player but maybe a guy that was overlooked. Maybe no opportunity presented itself. He’s always worked hard, and it’s nice to see him making the most of it.”