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Drew Smith carries winning record into first full season of minor league play

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After going without a loss in his first professional season, Drew Smith is on pace to play a major role in 2016.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to pitching prospects, few have the ability to steal the Tigers' heart quite like a hard-throwing righthander. Staying true to form in last year's draft, it came as no surprise when Detroit pounced on Crowley, Texas native Drew Smith as their third round selection.

Smith, a product of Dallas Baptist University, didn't come to the table with heart-stopping numbers from his collegiate career. In three years, he posted a 6-5 record with 6.82 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4.91 ERA.

Smith's professional career got off to a better start in comparison to the outings posted from his time in Dallas. Following a single game with the Tigers' Gulf Coast League, Smith played the majority of his season with short-season Connecticut, boasting a notable 1.3 walks per nine and an 0.68 WHIP through 27 2/3 innings of work with the minor league Tigers. With a pair of wins, Smith closed his chapter in Norwich with a team-best 0.33 ERA, walking only four overall, before receiving a promotion to Low-A West Michigan to end the year.

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Strengths

Without question, the most attractive piece of Smith's repertoire comes in the form of a sizzling plus fastball. His heater is known to flirt with 99 miles per hour on the radar gun, while resting comfortably between 92-95 miles per hour. With a three-quarter arm slot release, Smith comes to the office with a two-pitch arsenal, including an obviously dominant fastball still in its development stages, followed up by a hard, above-average curveball with an 11-to-5 break.

Jumping to the No. 16 slot on MLB Pipeline's Tigers Top 30 prospect rankings, the 22-year-old was acknowledged with a 60-grade for his fastball and a 55-grade on his sharp curve that proved to miss more bats at the professional level than his time at the collegiate level.

In the case of the minor league adjustment period for most, if not all collegiate players, Smith proved to go against the grain, producing an overall improvement, instead of the typical freshman slump that's known to take place. Ben Badler of Baseball America took notice of the improvement up the ladder, acknowledging that the Tigers could have a legitimate bullpen arm on their hands.

Smith stood out more for his stuff than his performance in college, but when he signed with the Tigers he started to throw more strikes and had more success. Ultimately he fits best in the bullpen, where he has a chance to become a solid reliever with a power fastball along with an average to above-average breaking ball at times.

While movement in his offerings is still a work in progress, Smith took a sizable jump in his swing-and-miss opportunities, shooting his strikeouts per nine percentage from his collegiate total of 6.82 to 11.0 overall in the 2015 season, split between three clubs within the organization. As far as getting himself into trouble with men in base, his 4.73 walks per nine as a Patriot plummeted to 1.5 walks per nine in his minor league debut.

Weaknesses

Measuring in at 6'2, 190 pounds, Smith isn't exceptionally large in comparison to most of his pitching competition. While velocity has never been an issue for Smith, his slightly less than daunting build requires him to rely on a strong overhand delivery to maintain downward motion against opposing hitters.

Facing a struggle similar to many of the newest faces to the Tigers' minor league pitching staff, an under-developed ability to add movement to their arsenal adds more of an urgency to avoid moving up into the zone at all costs. Any hitter who has been around the game long enough to reach the minor league level has little difficulty in slicing a fastball over the scoreboard after several innings of noticing a lack of movement.

While last season made it difficult to call out many flaws in the debut performance of the righty, his greatest requirement in 2016 should come down to a need for consistency in both pitch placement and overall ability to keep a hitter off balance.

Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs likes what he sees in the young Texan, but agrees that development of his command will be a key in Smith's future success.

I'd like to see his curve find some consistency, and hopefully his fastball command rubs off on his breaking ball to give him a clear path to high-leverage relief duty.

The silver-lining of a two-pitch combo is that Smith has developed both into two pieces that can only improve as his time within the organization continues. With serious velocity already intact, a fresh opportunity this season should silence any doubt regarding the potential powerhouse that the Tigers have on their hands.

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Evaluation: Chris Crawford, Baseball Prospectus

Smith is one of the better relief prospects in the system, and has a chance to become a high-leverage reliever. His fastball is plus and has touched the high 90s, and he complements that pitch with a curveball that flashes 60 with hard spin, though it typically sits above-average. There's no third pitch here -- and he loses the delivery/release point too often to close -- but those two pitches should allow him to move quickly through the system and someday pitch in the seventh or eighth innings.

Projected team: Low-A West Michigan

At the conclusion of the 2015 season, Smith got his first taste of Low-A ball with a one-game showing for the Whitecaps, where he earned the victory with 1 2/3 innings of relief. Riding the momentum of his first year in Detroit's organization, a relief role in the bullpen for Andrew Graham's squad should prove to be the perfect cultivation ground for the inning-eating 22-year-old. A second session of working under the guidance of West Michigan Pitching Coach Mark Johnson, the relief value of the youngster should have no trouble expanding as the 2016 season rolls on.

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Note: We're changing up our prospect coverage a bit this year. Instead of an "official" ranking of the best prospects in the system, we're going to profile those that are most interesting to us (and you too, hopefully). Don't worry, no one has been fired, and daily recaps will still happen during the season. We appreciate any constructive feedback you offer, and we'll take your prospect suggestions into account as well.