Over the last few years, the Detroit Tigers have had a strong penchant for SEC right-handers in the draft. Of course, the SEC produces an awful lot of good pitchers, so they’re hardly alone in this. Two of the Tigers’ last five first round picks have fit the description. In 2017 they selected Alex Faedo 18th overall out of Florida. A year later Casey Mize was the consensus first overall pick out of Auburn and the Tigers followed through, a move that certainly looks wise. We can go even back to the 2014 selection of Spencer Turnbull out of Alabama as another one that turned out great. In the third round in 2021, the Tigers went returned to Alabama for a very nice right-hander in Dylan Smith.
In a draft that heavily tilted toward pitching, the Tigers’ 2021 edition saw them take a standout prep right-hander in Jackson Jobe third overall. They went pitching again in the first competitive balance pick round, this time from the Big 12, with Texas right-hander Ty Madden. After adding a potential power bat in prep infielder Izaac Pacheco, the organization went right back to pitching by taking Smith, and there are plenty of reasons to believe it was a smart decision.
Dylan Smith doesn’t have the eye-popping stuff overall Jobe packs, or Madden’s velocity, but he’s already a staff favorite to break out at Bless You Boys. Still, the combination of general pitcher risk and the fact that we haven’t seen him on the mound since late last spring lead us to calm ourselves temporarily and rank him 13th in the system for the moment. If he’s notably improved this spring, his stock is going to bounce quickly.
Dylan Smith is a lanky 6-foot-2 right-hander from Stafford, Texas, outside of Houston. He was a multi-sport athlete, including soccer and running track, but baseball ultimately proved to be his game he declined D-1 football scholarships to pitch for Alabama. His college career was pretty non-descript until he emerged with a big junior year and was picked up in the third round by the Tigers.
Like every college player in that draft, the loss of most of the 2020 season had major impacts on his amateur career. As a freshman, he was wild and only worked 16 2⁄3 innings out of the bullpen. His sophomore year, Smith only took the bump four times in 2020 before the season was cancelled. He was stronger and looked to have improved his strike-throwing, but with only one start he still hadn’t made any name for himself on 2021 draft boards. However, he managed to develop a lot during the off year and arrived next spring ready to seize his junior year by the horns.
Everything changed in 2021 as Smith came out strong to establish himself in the rotation, seize the ace role, and vault up to a projected mid-second rounder in several mock drafts. Across 98 1⁄3 innings, Smith compiled a 3.84 ERA, racking up 113 strikeouts, eighth in the SEC, to just 14 walks. Slightly underpowered stuff kept him from consideration higher up in the draft, and he slipped a bit on draft day, gifting the Tigers a nice young pitcher with a well-rounded set of tools to work with in the third round.
We have a lot of good things to say about Dylan Smith, so let’s start with the weak point. At this point he doesn’t really have a plus pitch and his fastball is a little underpowered. Despite his strong numbers in his junior year, Smith was a little home run prone in spite of substantial improvement in his overall command. However there are good reasons to believe things could improve on that front, and there are a lot of other elements to his game to like.
Smith is a good athlete with a smooth, balanced delivery and good armspeed that helps his stuff play up. He has the extension and carry to draw his share of whiffs up in the zone and tie up right-handed hitters inside. However his mistakes tended to get whacked as he just doesn’t have the gas or particularly nasty movement to blow betters hitters away at this point. The fourseam-sinker combination is typically 92-93 mph, but a positive sign from his junior year was that he started showing the ability to dial up up 95-96 mph when he needed extra. Smith is a somewhat lanky 6-foot-2, and while he’s in good shape already, he may be able to build into that upper velocity band more consistently.
Other than his junior season, Smith had a minimal workload in his college career, which perhaps bodes positively both in terms of wear and tear, but also in terms of velocity projection. He’ll probably never be a big-time power pitcher but just a little more juice would help his deep pitch mix play up and give him a good chance to reach his current backend starter ceiling. It was interesting to note in an interview with Dan Dickerson that Smith was incorporating weighted ball training for the first time this spring.
His best secondary pitch is a quality slider that collected a lot of whiffs for him in 2021. Typically around 84 mph with pretty good tilt, Smith showed real feel for it during his junior year. With a little tweaking in the Tigers’ system the slider should develop into an above average offering for him. At times his curveball and changeup were very effective for him as well. The curveball has pretty good depth, generally in the high 70’s, while the changeup remains too firm, but at its best has a good deal of fading action. Nothing overpowering here, but three solid pitches for the Tigers’ player development staff to try and tune up.
The key to Dylan Smith is appreciating the many solid tools already in place. He already has pretty good command for his experience level and his mechanics, build, and overall athleticism say he’ll continue to improve his precision. FanGraphs projects him to eventually have plus command. He already shows the ability to execute a game plan pretty effectively as a result. Pitchers like that don’t necessarily need plus offerings to become a solid MLB backend starter.
He also has three solid secondary pitches in development, any one of which could turn into an above average offering in pro ball. The underwhelming fastball is going to keep a cap on his projections to that of a depth starter for now. On the plus side, if he can sharpen his four pitch mix, his command is probably enough to carry him the rest of the way even without a real standout offering. And if the stuff really pops we’re going to get pretty excited.
Projected 2022 team: High-A West Michigan Whitecaps
While the major league season is going off the rails, and Triple-A teams suddenly face weird roster crunches due to the loss of players on the 40-man and a lack of minor league free agent signings, the effect on the lower minor leagues should be minimal. An SEC standout with advanced command should have no trouble matching Midwest League hitters to start the year. Perhaps the Tigers will start him in Lakeland briefly to allow the player development staff to work with him a bit longer, but expect him to spend most of the year with the Whitecaps, and get a look at Erie late in the summer if things go well.