16) Will Smith, 7/10/89 - LHSP, A-Ball
10 Wins, 5 Losses. 133.3 IP, 3.69 ERA, 111 K/31 BB, - 2 runs saved
Ranking in a Nutshell: If present performance kindles your flame for a prospect, Smith is your man. He wasn't flawless in the Midwest League - he battled a series of nagging injuries, his groundball and K-rates dropped to average levels, and his runs saved total was disappointing (too many unearned runs) - but when he went to the mound, you knew what you were going to get: he stepped to the opposition with an average 88-92 mph fastball, an average curveball, and an average change, pounding all quadrants of the strike zone. He'll get hit - usually not very hard - but he won't give anything up for free. The Halos player development folks hold that quality in high regard - Eddie Bane has even said of him, "[Smith] will certainly pitch in the big leagues." That's from a guy who regularly talks up his players, sure, but I dare anyone to find a quote from him expressing such conviction about an A-ball prospect.
Track Record: Smith made a big impression in 2008 for two reasons. First, he was far more "polished" than anyone expected, walking just 6 batters in his pro debut. Second, he was highly "projectable" at 6'5" and only 19 years old, meaning that scouts felt his fastball could creep into the mid 90's as he grew into his frame. His stock fell this year as people came to see him less for what he could be, and more for what he is now: a strike-throwing lefty who does a lot of things well, but who doesn't have one stand-out pitch. There was some regression in his peripherals: he dropped from 9.4 K's per nine innings in rookie ball down to 7.5 K's/9 in the Midwest League, and his ground ball rate slipped from 49.1% to 46.4% in 2009. He maintained well above average control, walking only 2 batters per 9. He missed time in April due to a hamstring issue, and a full month in July when his lower back acted up. The latter injury certainly played a role in his horrendous August, but if you subtract those starts, then his season ERA looks a little better at 3.02. He recovered in time to pitch two dominant September playoff starts, going 1 and 1 with a 2.40 ERA and 16 punchouts in 15 innings.
Win-the-Lottery-Ceiling: A mid- to back- of the rotation starter who regularly out-performs his average arsenal. If Smith can return to his groundball-inducing ways, then Joe Saunders is a great comp.
Scouting Report: (beneath the jump)
Smith's frame has filled out over the past year, so his remaining "projection" - anticipated growth in strength and physicality - is dwindling. He has a deliberate, big-man's delivery that involves little effort, so his arm has a better chance than most of avoiding wear-and-tear related injury. However, with his size he has to make conditioning a priority if he wants to avoid leg and back issues in the future.
Note in this video how Smith uses his full arsenal of pitches against right-handed Brewer prospect Corey Kemp. He works both sides of the plate well, coming inside with a fastball for a called strike and then dropping a backdoor curve to get the groundball. In the second at bat, he throws another fastball in and then gets Kemp out on his front foot with a change-up, inducing a weak tapper back to the mound. While Smith gets to the ball in time to make the play, you can see in his labor why Eddie Bane remarked "there's a lot of David Wells in his comp." If you care to see Smith shred a lefty for two consecutive K's, proceed to the next video in the You Tube series.
Smith will head the Rancho Cucamonga rotation next year, and the critical question is whether his strikeout and groundball rates continue to erode against better competition. I'm optimistic - I think there's enough injury-related noise going on in his Midwest League peripherals that his stats might actually improve, even in the California League.