Part of the fun in spring training is trying to identify up-and-coming talent, beyond the young players already getting a lot of ink on prospects lists.
For the Mariners, 23-year-old Carson Smith, a right-handed reliever, has really stood out to me and others. An eighth-round selection out of Texas State University in San Marcos in 2011, Smith is relatively unheralded. His debut pro season in 2012 was spent entirely at Class A High Desert. But I look for Smith to be on the fast track. He’ll likely start the year at Double-A Jackson, but you never know where he might end up. Last year, Carter Capps wasn’t on anyone’s radar, having pitched just four games at Class A Clinton in 2011 after being chosen as a supplemental third-round pick in the same draft as Smith. But he was up in the majors by the end of the season.
Smith says that Capps’s rise gives him some inspiration.
“It does. It’s good to see young guys like that. He throws the ball 100 mph; it’s tough to keep him in the lower levels. It’s nice to see the Mariners move guys like that. It gives you a little inspiration, a little better feel for maybe how short, or how near, it is in the future.”
What stands out about Smith? For starters, there’s his funky sidearm delivery, out of which he throws a sinking fastball with plenty of movement. He said he peaked at 96 mph last year but usually sits in the low 90s.
“I’m happy with that as long as I’m hitting my spots,” he said.
He scrapped his curveball last year at the behest of the Mariners, but has a changeup to compliment his hard stuff. But Smith’s forte, and likely his eventual ticket to the majors, is a power slider that might be the best in the organization. Earlier in the spring, here’s what manager Eric Wedge had to say about Smith’s repertoire.
“He’s deceptive,” Wedge said. “He widens the plate. He has that power sinker and the power slider too. When you can do that, particularly against right-handers, you are going to be very effective.”
Smith said his challenge is not to fall in love with the slider.
“Sometimes I use it too much, but it is my out pitch,” he said. “I’ve got to learn to pitch away from that and use it only as my out pitch.”
So far, so good. In four spring appearances, covering four innings, Smith still hasn’t allowed a run. In fact, he’s allowed just two hits and no walks, while striking out five.
That’s on top of highly impressive numbers last year at High Desert, regarded as one of the toughest places to pitch in the entire minor leagues. Analysts have learned to discount the astronomic offensive statistics put up in the California League in general, and High Desert in particular. So when a pitcher puts up a 2.90 ERA, as Smith did last year, it’s noteworthy. But if you break it down further, Smith took over as closer on June 15 and was nearly unhittable. From that point, he saved 14 of 15 games with a 0.54 ERA (two earned runs in 33 2/3 innings). He didn’t allow any runs over his final 19 1/3 innings.
Not bad for a guy who had been a starter throughout his career, including college.
“I got a little more comfortable out the bullpen,” Smith said. “I also got a little more comfortable with my catcher, John Hicks. We were on the same page, the same chemistry. He did a great job for me. It all started clicking in the second half.”
And now Smith is at home in the bullpen.
“I was a starter all the way through last spring training, and they moved me to the pen when I went to High Desert,” he said. “I transitioned well, I like it. I think it’s a better role for me. You can save my arm in the long run.”
It’s a role that appears to have Smith on a fast track to the major leagues.