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MLB spring training 2017: Is this the most important camp of Nate Smith’s career?

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

For awhile there, it sure seemed like this would be his year, and it’d be his job to lose. Of course, “his” is in reference to Nate Smith, 2017 was the year in question, and the job I mention is the fifth arm in the Angels’ starting rotation.

Over the last couple seasons, we watched as Smith, the Angels’ 8th round pick in the 2013 draft, climbed the organization’s prospect ladder, becoming one of their best young pitchers in the process.

When Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, two of the other top prospects in the Halos’ system, were added to the Erick-Aybar-for-Andrelton-Simmons deal, Smith had to have thought “Here it comes. My time to shine”, and things were looking good.

Since that trade, he had been catapulted towards the top of the Angels’ prospect list in 2015, got some All Star honors that same year, was promoted to AAA and played in the 2016 Futures Game. Good times all around.

The lane to the big league was suddenly visible and the path ahead had been cleared for him...he just had to stay healthy, and he’d get his shot at the end of the 2016 season.

That’s when his elbow said “Not so fast”, and a bout of tendinitis derailed that shot at getting his first call-up action. Smith had to have been bummed beyond belief; so close, but then the rug was pulled out from underneath his feet.

Still, he maintained his top prospect stature, and many would have thought that the Halos, in quite the pickle due to some gnarly injuries and pitching departures, would have him as the heir apparent to their open fifth starter spot.

The bad news is that Smith stumbled a bit and tripped himself up on the mound in ‘16, as he learned the hard way that Salt Lake City is a much tougher environment, competitively-speaking, than AA Arkansas, where in the previous season he was named Pitcher of the Year.

He racked up a 4.61 ERA over 150.1 innings pitched with the Bees in 2016, but as Jessica mentioned in her recent top prospect write-up about Smith (Halos Heaven has him at #5), he had flashes of brilliance here and there, enough to give the office of the GM hope for future success.

Still, he didn’t show the type of dominance that would inspire confidence, and here we are, spring training underway, and Nate Smith is finding himself no longer the obvious choice of getting on the team’s opening day roster. Nope, there was still work to be done.

The statistical slip he endured in 2016 did worried Billy Eppler enough to make the Angels go out and get a bevy of starters, young and old, who will stand in Smith’s way. There is a lot of pressure on the guy, no doubt about it.

He’s 25 years old, and has already been working the AAA level, making him a top prospect who is at that part of his career where we really find out if he’s good enough to take that next step...and it’s a big one.

Yes, this spring training is HUGE for Nate Smith.

We’re about to learn if he’s still a prospect worth counting on for big league support in the near future, or if he’s going to sputter out in the AAA level, never able to break through that last career barrier, except for a random, late season call-up here and there. Can he hack it?

I suppose if I were looking for a silver lining, it’d be his competition.

Jesse Chavez and Bud Norris are two guys that could take that 5th starter job, but both of them struggled mightily at times in the their respective 2016 seasons. Many people like Alex Meyer to win the job, but he’s shown himself to still be shaky from time to time, plus the Angels may decide to put his flamethrower arm in the bullpen, anyway.

Everybody else...from Banuelos to Pounders to Petit to Lamb...have their own things to prove in camp, but they are also fringe arms that Smith SHOULD be able to outperform regularly.

Nate Smith says he’s fully healthy, that the tendinitis is gone, and the UCL is strong. That’s good, because he’s going to need all of his strength and all of his arsenal at his disposal in Tempe over the next month or so. The expectations are low, and maybe that’s how he prefers it; to be able to get the element of surprise, to turn heads at camp with a strong showing.

That fifth starter job was right there for the taking, the brass ring just out of reach, but the cruelty of baseball never sleeps and we’re heading into a spring where Nate Smith is not only going to be fighting for a job at the MLB level, but he’ll also be fighting to stay relevant to the Angels organization. If this isn’t a make or break time, then it’s at least pretty dang close.

Good luck, Mr. Smith.