Monday, February 20, 2012

Blake Smith's chance to cement future begins now

When the Dodgers drafted Blake Smith in the second round of the 2009 draft, they were going against the grain.

Many teams saw Smith as a better pitching prospect than hitting prospect, but the Dodgers thought otherwise. It wasn't the first time in the Logan White era the Dodgers have done something this: James Loney was drafted as a first baseman when teams viewed him as a pitcher in 2002 and Ethan Martin was drafted as a pitcher when teams viewed him as a third baseman in 2008.

But after three seasons and nearly 1,000 plate appearances, it's clear the Dodgers made the right decision in drafting Smith as an outfielder.

Smith said he's happy to do whatever is necessary to be a member of a Major League team.

"I had, and still do have one goal, and that's to be a long-term contributor to a big league team," Smith said. "To me, it doesn't matter how I reach that goal. I am willing to do whatever it takes."

Smith said he misses pitching but playing the field more than makes up for it.

"It's an amazing feeling to get up there and challenge a guy with a good fastball when everyone in the park knows its coming and blow it by him; I do miss that," Smith said. "At the same time, I love playing everyday. I love hitting and I love playing the field."

Unfortunately for Smith, two of the deepest positions in the Dodgers' system are corner outfielder and right-handed reliever. But Smith's talents could help him gain the upper hand in his quest to be a contributor.

His defense, arm and raw power are among the best in the system. And despite playing in the hitter-friendly California League in 2011, there are a lot of things to be impressed with, including his smooth stroke and ability to drive the ball to the opposite field.

As a 22-year-old for the Great Lakes Loons in 2010, Smith posted a .281/.363/.488 line with 19 home runs in 430 at-bats. Smith improved those numbers to .304/.369/.948 and 20 home runs in 2011, but it wasn't without adversity.

Smith suffered a double hernia in the first half of last season and played through it until the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes clinched a playoff spot in the Cal League Playoffs.

"Although I got an injury early in the season, which was disappointing, I really wanted to stick it out until we at least clinched playoffs," Smith said, "which is why I waited until the first half was over to have surgery."

Like all athletes, Smith just wants to win. However, he said the one thing he really wants to do in 2012 has nothing to do with hitting the ball well or throwing the ball hard.

"I want to stay healthy," Smith said. "The last two seasons, I have missed significant time with freak accidents (four weeks for a concussion in 2010 and nine weeks with a double hernia in 2011) and it was extremely frustrating. You can't contribute to the team being hurt."

He said he also wants to increase his run production in 2012.

"I love my RBIs. It's what I live for during the season and I put a lot of pressure on myself to get them," Smith said. "To me, that's how you win games -- you score more than your opponent. I don't think you can ever knock in enough runs, so that being said, I'd like to improve on hitting with runners in scoring position."

Smith didn't do anything differently in 2011 than he did in 2010, but said he learned a little more about his swing helped him improve.

"Baseball is such a repetitious sport, figuring out a good routine to get yourself mentally and physically ready for your given task is key," Smith said, "and I think I'm starting to put together what works for me."

Smith has played baseball since he was a child, as well as other sports. But he said baseball was always No. 1 in his heart.

Smith said his favorite part about playing baseball is the inherent challenge the game presents.

"Hitting a baseball is the most challenging thing to do in sports, it's a fact," Smith said. "The sweet feeling of barreling up a pitch, the feeling you get as you release the ball from the outfield and see the guy running home has no chance of scoring. The smell of the grass and feeling of your cleats sinking into the dirt. It's truly a beautiful game and nothing else give me the feelings that baseball does."

His future in the Majors hinges a lot on his 2012 performance. Andre Ethier is a free agent after this season and there are a few prospects/young players ahead of him in the pecking order, including Alfredo Silverio, Scott Van Slyke, Alex Castellanos and Jerry Sands -- all of whom should begin with the Albuquerque Isotopes.

He also has teammate Angelo Songco to compete against. Van Slyke, Castellanos and Songco are all capable of playing elsewhere, but none of them have Smith's defensive ability in the outfield (especially right field), so that's a plus in his column. However, Van Slyke and Castellanos, albeit older prospects, have already experienced Double-A while Smith is going to get his first taste of the Southern League.

Still, Smith has the most upside of any Dodger outfield prospect. His power potential and defensive ability put him ahead of the rest. He'll need a strong showing in Chattanooga to convince others, though.

Smith has been pretty successful thus far in his career, but he said one of his best accomplishments came before he was even a pro.

"One I will always remember was the summer I played for Team USA," Smith said. "It was the most unbelievable collection of athletes I have ever been on the field with. We went 24-0, which is going to be a tough record to break."

He was a member of the 2008 USA Baseball National (Collegiate) Team. As a two-way player on the squad, Smith led the team in hitting, going 18-for-55 (.327) with three home runs, five doubles and 13 RBI in 20 games. He also threw nine innings, picking up two saves and 11 strikeouts without allowing an earned run. The team won the gold medal at the IV FISU World Collegiate Baseball Championship in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2008.

But he owes a lot of his success -- and potential future success -- to his family.

"My family, without a doubt, is my biggest influence," Smith said. "I can't even begin to explain what they have done for me. Without them and all their support, I wouldn't be half the man I am today."

Photo credits: Dustin Nosler, Feelin' Kinda Blue

1 comment: