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Tigers prospect Kelvin Smith, Jr. opens up about his first season of professional baseball

We sat down with Tigers draftee Kelvin Smith Jr. to talk about his transition to pro ball.

Atlanta Braves v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

On day three of the 2018 MLB draft, the Detroit Tigers selected prep shortstop Kelvin Smith, Jr. with the first pick of the 20th round (585th overall). Listed at 6’1 and 185 pounds, Smith was one of the top shortstops in the baseball-rich state of Georgia’s class. Originally committed to play college ball at the University of Missouri, it was a pleasant surprise to Tigers fans when he inked a deal for $140,000 ($15,000 over slot) and went off to the Gulf Coast League to start his professional career.

In the field, scouts have praised both his hands and feet, as well as his ability to throw well on the move. For now, at least, he is a pure shortstop with the versatility to play anywhere in the infield. Offensively, the right-handed Smith possesses advanced bat speed and makes frequent loud contact. His 6.51 second 60-yard dash speed [Ed.: That’s really good] can stretch singles into doubles and cause havoc on the base paths.

Smith’s Gulf Coast League journey got off to a hot start. He hit safely in his first eight professional games, drawing six walks and swiping six bags over that stretch. Things fizzled after that, however, and he finished with a .202 batting average and 51 strikeouts in 132 plate appearances. Still, Smith flashed enough of his tools to make himself one of the more intriguing prospects heading into 2019.

Bless You Boys recently caught up with Smith this offseason, along with his prep coach at Redan High School, Alexander Wyche, to talk about Smith’s journey thus far and his goals moving forward.

One of the concerns with drafting a high school player in the 20th round is signability. Many, if not most, taken this late in the draft opt to head off to college for a couple years to try and improve their draft stock. This was never a concern for Smith.

“Going into draft day, I knew I was going to sign because my childhood dream was to get drafted and play in the big leagues. (The Tigers) and I did not have a prior relationship before the draft. I’m happy they gave me the opportunity and believe in me.”

For anyone jumping from amateur to professional sports, the biggest adjustment always seems to be the overall speed of the game. Smith echoed these sentiments when asked about his experience. “Everyone in the outfield can run and everyone has a pretty good arm. You really have to hit the ball to burn the outfielders.”

Smith says fellow high school draftees Parker Meadows and Kingston Liniak have become his best friends, and he is super close with 17th round pick Avery Tuck and seventh round pick Eric De La Rosa. Interestingly, Smith has known Daz Cameron for several years. Cameron attended Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy, roughly 20 miles south of Redan, during his prep days. This is interesting, I believe, because Smith has a similar offensive profile to that of Cameron at this age; terrific bat speed and exit velocity, speed both out of the box and on the paths, and the ability to leave the yard on occasion.

During the Fall Instructional League, Smith didn’t participate much, other than rehabbing some tendinitis in his knees. After that, the Tigers sent him to weight camp. “I believe once I get older and grow into my body, I’ll have a lot of power in my bat,” Smith said. “I’ve been gap-to-gap my whole life, with some pop that’s better than most, and I believe I could hit 30 home runs someday.”

Smith says GCL East Tigers skipper Luis Lopez has been the single greatest influence on his development as a pro. Since weight camp, Smith has been doing a lot of glove drills and hitting every single day, specifically working on keeping his weight on his back leg.

Coach Wyche had a front row seat for Kelvin’s junior and senior campaigns in high school at Redan, and he certainly believes Smith has the tools to make it. “His junior year, you knew he had the physical tools to be a pro player,” Wyche recalls. “Above average high school arm, plus runner, and power to all parts of the field. Plus, the body to gain weight and add power. He also has a feel for the game that you can’t teach.”

“His whole senior year was full of defensive highlights that only a drafted player could make. Probably the most memorable was when we played West Orange in Florida. Kelvin made a Jeter-ish play in the six-hole, and made a jump-throw to get the runner out. The whole crowd cheered and the opposing coach said he hadn’t seen a play like that since the time he saw José Reyes in high school.”

Wyche summarized, “If he can be more consistent at the plate and stay mentally focused each play, he will be a five-tool player. Every team is looking for that in a big leaguer.”

Smith has quite a few steps to climb in order to make that dream a reality. He is a supremely confident, polite kid with a terrific attitude and work ethic. The journey continues in 2019, likely with the Connecticut Tigers. As with several of the Tigers’ 2018 draftees like De La Rosa, Liniak, Hugh Smith, and others, Smith is another with the upside to start creeping up prospect lists.

Perhaps his father, Kelvin Smith, Sr., summed it up best, “Kelvin comes from a community where failure is seen daily. Baseball is a game of failure and one has to learn to recognize it and deal with it to have success this sport. Kelvin is a fighter. He understands this opportunity was earned and not given.”