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2017 BYB Tigers Prospect #19: RHP Drew Smith is another hard-throwing reliever

A high-octane righthander with command issues, Smith is a prototypical Tigers pitching prospect.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Several times over throughout this prospect countdown, we have mentioned the Detroit Tigers’ predilection for pitching prospects with high-octane stuff. Even outsiders recognize that the Tigers have never met a 95 mile-per-hour fastball they didn’t like. Unfortunately, this preference has not produced much value over the past several years. The Tigers have constantly had to look outside the organization for relief help. Sometimes, that results in a Joaquin Benoit! Sometimes, you end up with Mark Lowe.

Fortunately, help may be on the way. Joe Jimenez has drawn all sorts of hype already this spring, and we gave Texas A&M product Mark Ecker some love on Thursday. Current starters like Kyle Funkhouser and Spencer Turnbull may also end up in the ‘pen.

Another potential option down the road could be righthander Drew Smith. A former third round pick out of Dallas Baptist University, Smith has a big fastball that helped him strike out 62 batters in 48 23 innings at Single-A West Michigan in 2016. He managed a solid 2.96 ERA and limited opponents to 6.3 hits per nine innings. Through 79 23 career minor league innings, Smith has 100 strikeouts.

Strengths

As one might expect, Smith’s best pitch is a mid-90s four-seam fastball. According to MLB.com, it sits anywhere from 92-95 miles per hour, but can get into the upper 90s at times. Scouts noted that Smith’s fastball was a little flat at times during his days at Dallas Baptist, but it appears to be improving with professional instruction. He had trouble controlling it at times in 2016, but was in complete command the season before; in 31 innings, Smith struck out 38 batters to just five walks across three levels.

Smith also features a hard curveball that has also improved since his college days. MLB.com notes that Smith has thrown his curveball a lot more over the past couple years, while scouting reports from several different publications note that the breaking ball has improved since this time last year. No one has had the gall to give Smith’s curveball a plus grade yet, but MLB Pipeline projects it as an above-average pitch.

Perhaps most encouraging of all is how Smith has progressed as a player since being drafted. Baseball Draft Report was quite down on Smith when the Tigers selected him in the third round.

...seeing Smith throw is a really confusing experience. He has explosive stuff — 90-96 FB, 98-99 peak; average or better mid-70s CB; enough of a low-80s changeup that you can start imagining a future beyond the bullpen — and livable control, but rarely did college hitters appear fooled by what he threw up there. There’s enough noise with straight run prevention in small samples with unreliable defenses and scoring decisions and playing conditions and you get the point, but Smith’s two full seasons at Dallas Baptist resulted in ERAs of 5.79 and 4.39. That alone doesn’t bug me much, but a guy with his kind of stuff only striking out 7ish batters per nine is just hard to explain.

They did call Smith a potential “relief ace” in the next sentence, but there is still a difference between that report and the one TigsTown’s Mark Anderson filed this spring.

Working with a fastball that routinely sits in the mid-90s and will reach as high as 98 mph at his best, Smith can blow hitters away when he’s in and around the strike zone; something that is consistently a challenge for him. When he’s throwing strike, Smith’s curveball can be a solid second weapon.

Smith still needs some fine-tuning — more on that in a moment — but he has made solid progress thus far.

Weaknesses

Even though Smith started out his professional career in impressive fashion, his command is still a work in progress. He walked 23 batters in 48 23 innings last season, a rate of over four per nine innings. Smith was still able to manage a 2.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the team would probably like to see him push that closer to (if not north of) 4.00. MLB.com grades his command as below-average, while TigsTown’s Mark Anderson notes that Smith “is unlikely to make much progress” in harnessing his command due to the effort in his pitching delivery.

There are also questions about how nasty Smith’s stuff really is. He throws plenty hard, but FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen reports that Smith’s fastball “lacks horizontal movement.” Pitchers can get by on velocity alone at the lower levels, and this may be what helped Smith amass such solid numbers last season. MLB.com picked up on the same flatness to his fastball, saying “A lack of movement led to him getting hit in college...” The next two levels should give us a good look at how Smith’s fastball will play against more advanced competition.

There is also some disagreement on how good Smith’s curveball is. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen called it merely average, saying:

“Smith mixes in an average, looping curveball which he sometimes doesn’t get on top of. It often has solid depth but lacks bite and if more effective underneath the strike zone than in it.”

Mark Anderson echoed a similar sentiment, saying that Smith’s curveball is reliant on him throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count (i.e. giving him a chance to bury the curveball in the dirt and get hitters to chase).

Jacob’s Scouting Report:

Fastball: 60
Curve: 55
Control: 45

Projected Team: Lakeland Flying Tigers

Like other Tigers relief prospects before him, Smith is an advanced college arm who could move quickly through the farm system. He spent all of 2016 at Single-A West Michigan after elbow trouble ended his 2015 season, but should have the kid gloves off in 2017. He will most likely start the season in Lakeland, but should move quickly if he produces. This isn’t a make-or-break year for him by any means, but it will tell us a lot about his overall ceiling. If things go well and he hones his command some, he could be in line for a call-up at some point in 2018.