At six-foot-eight with a mid-90s fastball, Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Matt Smoral isn’t the type of guy you easily forget.
“The giant guy?” Pat Hentgen asks when the name is mentioned. “He’s huge, got a great arm, the ball just jumps out of his hand. He’s a big prospect. I liked what I saw – unfortunately I only saw him for one little bullpen session, I was actually focused on one of our big-leaguers at the time.
“I kept looking over at him and was like, ‘Wow.’”
That’s the impression the 2012 supplemental first-round pick, compensation for the free-agent departure of Frank Francisco, has left on many people during extended spring training, and the 19-year-old is expected to open up with the rookie-ball Gulf Coast League Blue Jays when the short-season leagues get going in June.
Smoral may end up being a steal for the Blue Jays after he slipped in the draft because of a stress fracture in his right foot, an injury his doctor believes was connected to a seven-inch growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years in high school.
Surgery to put a plate and a couple of pins on the fourth metatarsal in his foot, a procedure more common for NBA players, has taken care of that, and he has had time to grow into his imposing frame. Over the winter he's both gained strength and co-ordination with his longer limbs, and will soon get a chance to test out his gains in games that count.
"The most difficult thing was my lower half, it was really hard to keep closed," says Smoral. "I feel this off-season I addressed that issue pretty well. Most of my height is from my legs and I was growing, it was hard to get my legs working with my upper half. Now I feel I can do a much better job of that and over the next couple of years I think I'll just keep getting better and better."
Another area where the native of Solon, Ohio is also looking to improve is with his changeup, and that's where Hentgen comes in.
Smoral remembers Hentgen sitting around the bullpen with a handful of Blue Jays prospects during spring training, preaching the importance of the changeup, the need to experiment with different grips until just the right one is found, and it struck a chord.
"He was talking about different grips and the game in general," recalls Smoral. "He said, you're down here in the lower levels right now but you're really not that far away. ...
"My changeup is still a little hard. That's definitely the pitch I need to work on most. But I'm throwing my slider for strikes and locating the fastball. I have a lot of work to do but I think over the next three, four years I can come a long way."
Hentgen suggests pitchers looking for a changeup ask teammates about their grips and then practise with different ones while playing catch. He also preaches fastball command, not only to be able to pitch in the strike zone, but to be able to pitch consistently on the edges of the box.
The 1996 Cy Young Award winner certainly came away impressed with the heater Smoral featured that spring day.
"I didn't see the radar gun and I don't care about the radar gun," says Hentgen. "Sometimes when you stand behind the pitcher, the ball looks small. It's hard to explain. A.J. Burnett is a guy that when I walked out behind the mound, I thought, 'Wow, it looks like a BB coming out of his hand.' Smoral had that BB effect, where the ball just looks small.
"There are two different 95s. One guy throws 95 and it's just 95, and the other guy can throw 95 and it's 95 with life. It's all about late life in the hitting area and when you have that late movement and late life, you can make mistakes in the strike zone and you can get people out in the strike zone."
Smoral's aim is to finish his first pro season with low-A Lansing of the Midwest League, which would have him close to home, an ambitious goal.
"I would think he's going to start in the Gulf Coast League," says GM Alex Anthopoulos, "and if he performs there, at some point, depending on how those teams in Bluefield and Vancouver do, we might slide him up there."
Dustin McGowan (four games, four innings, four earned runs) is nearing a return from the disabled list. He's eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list on Thursday and his rehabilitation assignment expires June 12, so barring an injury he'll be back within that period.
The right-hander passed a test Monday when he threw two innings for the first time. "He's been doing one but when he's back here, it'll be nice to know he can do two," says Alex Anthopoulos. "The most encouraging thing about everything is (in the reports) normally you get a little sore, a little tight, doesn't feel great today, but nothing. It's amazing."
With Brett Lawrie on the DL, third baseman Andy LaRoche is another Bisons player to keep an eye on. He's batting .295/.372/.483 in 41 games.
Jim Negrych continues putting together an impressive season at triple-A. The 28-year-old is hitting .377/.436/.552 through 173 plate appearances as Buffalo's starting second baseman.
Right-handed reliever Joel Carreno earned a promotion to Buffalo after the Blue Jays called on three Bisons pitchers. Carreno had posted a 1.65 ERA in 27.1 innings at double-A before joining the Bisons.
NEW HAMPSHIRE FISHER CATS
Sean Nolin made his first start back with the Fisher Cats on Tuesday since his difficult Blue Jays debut Friday, allowing two runs on four hits and three walks in five innings against Portland. He struck out for.
"For Sean, it was just getting it out of the way, you could tell he was wide-eyed," Alex Anthopoulos says of his 1.1 inning start Friday. "If he had gone four or five innings, even if he had given up four or five runs, then you give him another turn. He had been performing well down there, he performed well at the end of last year, the velocity wasn't the same and that's part of being tight. He'll be back."
Nolin's experience may give the Blue Jays pause with Marcus Stroman, another prospect who's on the fast track. Through two starts, he's allowed two runs on 10 hits and two walks in nine innings, striking out 11.
"He's going to continue to pitch," says Anthopoulos. "It's nice to see him as a starter, we thought he could do both, but we're finding out about him a little bit, turning a lineup over, things like that."
DUNEDIN BLUE JAYS
Blue-chip prospect Aaron Sanchez is coming out of a brief shutdown period because of a minor shoulder issue and Alex Anthopoulos says the right-hander "feels great, he doesn't have any pain, any soreness, so he should get going here soon."
"With the young guys, we're going to be ultra-conservative and cautious," he adds. "We were going to watch his innings for the year, anyway."
Any thoughts of Tommy John surgery for Roberto Osuna are on hold as he continues a throwing program. The right-hander isn't scheduled to pitch yet and the procedure may yet take place.
"He's throwing sides, feels good, but let's get him off the mound and throwing innings," says Alex Anthopoulos. "Right now he doesn't have any soreness or any pain."