Blue Jays farm report: Kevin Smith proving doubters wrong

Arash Madani spoke to Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins about the team’s pitching and the prospect on every baseball fan’s mind- Vlad Guerrero Jr., who is tearing it up in the minors.

TORONTO – Pinned atop Kevin Smith’s Twitter page is a message he sent out Oct. 25, 2017, reading simply, “Believe in Yourself” above an attached photo of him making a throw for Maryland and a lengthy note with a story. In it, he relays how in the seventh grade, one of his baseball teammates told him every day to quit playing because he was too small and not fast enough. He also details others who doubted him as he continued to progress. At the end, he urges kids going through something similar to not let any naysayers stand in their way.

In many ways, the letter illustrates what the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop prospect is all about.

“I feel like a lot of social media nowadays is all the good things that happen, making an all-star team, or you committed to this college or that college, but that kind of gives a false sense of what success is and what it takes to go on this journey,” says Smith. “I really try to point out some negative things that happen, or at least the things that most people don’t put out on Twitter, the 0-for-5 games, people not believing in you, not getting a shot, not getting the time you deserve, stuff like that, just so people know that is all part of it as well.

“I’m really trying to show both sides of it, because you know, you don’t get one without the other.”

Smith is certainly enjoying the last laugh on his taunting teammate, and those who later told him he wouldn’t play shortstop on the South Troy Dodgers, and that he made a mistake by committing to Maryland, where he wouldn’t be good enough to start. The 21-year-old from Troy, N.Y., starred at every step along the way, getting selected by the Blue Jays in the fourth round, 129th overall, last year.

Some spring struggles ahead of the draft may have dropped his stock a touch, but he made a solid pro debut with the Blue Jays at rookie-ball Bluefield, slashing .271/.312/.466 in 61 games before taking off this year at low-A Lansing.

Through his first 37 games, he’s hitting .378/.434/.662 with six homers and 20 doubles but most importantly he’s cut his strikeout rate of 24.7 per cent last year to 13.9 per cent, increased his walk rate from 5.7 per cent to 9.0 per cent while spiking his slugging percentage.

The Blue Jays believe the improvements are no mere fluke, either, but rather the product of Smith’s deliberate off-season work, which focused on shortening his swing and refining his two-strike approach.

“I self-evaluate a lot, probably more than I should, but I knew that was an area that I had to work on,” he says. “I had a loop in my swing and I’m not really sure how it got there. Looking at swings, I can tell when something’s off. I was getting way under the ball, coming way up through it and I really wasn’t on plane with it for a while. The whole off-season was just trying to work on that ball up and that was what was giving me trouble, fastballs up, I’d try to cheat to it and then get exposed with breaking balls away.

“Really, it was working on that pitch, saying if I can drive this pitch through the middle or into the gaps, then I know I’m on time, I know I can hit anything else. Along with that came some swing adjustments that I wasn’t really forcing on myself, but they just kind of came to fruition because I was trying to shorten up and trying to get to that pitch. Now my swing can handle that pitch and I’m a little more confident the plate.”

In turn his performance has increasingly caught the attention of Blue Jays evaluators, although a logjam of infielders in the farm system’s lower levels makes a promotion complicated. With Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Devon Travis up the middle at triple-A Buffalo, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio at double-A, 2017 first-rounder Logan Warmoth at advanced-A Dunedin and Kevin Vicuna and Samad Taylor also in Lansing, much of the playing time is spoken for.

That’s why Smith has also played some third base this season, after initially being told to be ready for some time at second base and first base.

“Really, it’s more that we have a lot of very good middle infielders so they’re all having to play other infield positions. We feel very good about the likelihood of (Smith) being a shortstop,” says general manager Ross Atkins. “It starts with your faith and belief in their ability to play shortstop every day and the power of that is worth exhausting that avenue. But when you have multiple guys who can do it you need to balance it out. In some cases having that versatility, like a Ben Zobrist, like Marwin Gonzalez, like Yangervis Solarte, is clearly an asset. But in most cases most working off shortstop is best because that’s going to be the most difficult one to play.”

The coaching staff at Lansing has been impressed with the way Smith has thrown himself at learning how to play third base and the dedication he’s shown is among the reason they praise his leadership abilities.

Growing up in New York, Smith really admired Derek Jeter and as he came along worked hard to emulate his defence, his swing and his leadership. Smith’s Twitter timeline is filled with messages about determination and dedication, plus shout-outs to his teammates for their performances, something he says he likes to do highlight contributions that can get overlooked.

It’s a small thing, but it speaks to a generosity of spirit that can make a difference. Not that he really sees it that way.

“At the end of the day guys respect people who are on time and put in extra work and are there day-in and day-out for them,” says Smith. “There’s a lot of eyewash with teammates nowadays, with all this energy you’re supposed to have in the dugout and all this extra stuff that you’re supposed to do. Everyone tries to have good teammate lessons and classes and at the end the day, people are going to respect who they’re going to respect, and it’s always the guys that put in the work, who work the hardest, who have a lot of confidence in themselves and show up on a daily basis.”

And the tweets?

“That’s something I hope teammates look at and get some laughs.”

Triple-A Buffalo Bisons

Lourdes Gurriel Jr., INF
Acquired: Signed as international free agent in 2016
Season to date (Majors): 70 PA | 2 HR | .206/.229/.309 | 2 BB | 17 K
Season to date (Buffalo): 8 PA | 1 HR | .125/.125/.500 | 0 BB | 2 K
Season to date (New Hampshire): 52 PA | 1 HR | .347/.382/.510 | 3 BB | 6 K

Anthony Alford, OF
Acquired: 3rd round, 2012 draft
Season to date (Majors): 16 PA | 0 HR | .143/.250/.143 | 2 BB | 6 K
Season to date (Buffalo): 49 PA | 0 HR | .128/.180/.149 | 2 BB | 19 K

Danny Jansen, C
Acquired: 16th round, 2013 draft
Season to date: 109 PA | 2 HR | .305/.364/.398 | 14 BB | 15 K

Ryan Borucki, pitcher
Acquired: 15th round, 2012 draft
Season to date: 3.40 ERA | 39.2IP | 13 BB | 33K

In this MLB and Toronto Blue Jays podcast, Dan Shulman takes a look at the human side of baseball. Because everyone in the game has a story.

Double-A New Hampshire Fisher-Cats

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B
Acquired: Signed as international free agent in 2015
Season to date: 160 PA | 7 HR | .407/.456/.676 | 15 BB | 15 K

Bo Bichette, SS
Acquired: 2nd round, 2016 draft
Season to date: 173 PA | 1 HR | .258/.333/.387 | 18 BB | 37 K

Cavan Biggio, 2B
Acquired: 5th round, 2016 draft
Season to date: 147 PA | 12 HR | .303/.421/.697 | 25 BB | 39 K

Max Pentecost, C/1B
Acquired: 1st round, 2014 draft
Season to date: 97 PA | 2 HR | .222/.280/.378 | 7 BB | 25 K

T.J. Zeuch, pitcher
Acquired: 1st round, 2016 draft
Season to date (New Hampshire): 5.74 ERA | 15.2 IP | 4 BB | 9 K
Season to date (Dunedin): 3.47 ERA | 36.1 IP | 9 BB | 24 K

Sean Reid-Foley, 22, pitcher
Acquired: 2nd round, 2014 draft
Season to date: 2.03 ERA | 44.1 IP | 20 BB | 52 K

Jordan Romano, 22, pitcher
Acquired: 10th round, 2014 draft
Season to date: 1.94 ERA | 46.1 IP | 20 BB | 44 K

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Advanced-A Dunedin Blue Jays

Logan Warmoth, SS
Acquired: 1st round, 2017 draft
Season to date: 149 PA | 1 HR | .255/.322/.328 | 12 BB | 30 K

Riley Adams, C
Acquired: 3rd round, 2017 draft
Season to date: 120 PA | 1 HR | .193/.276/.284 | 11 BB | 33 K

Nate Pearson, pitcher
Acquired: 1st round, 2017 draft
Season to date (DL): 10.80 ERA | 1.2 IP | 0 BB | 1 K

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Low-A Lansing Lugnuts

Kevin Vicuna, SS
Acquired: Signed as international free agent in 2014
Season to date: 165 PA | 1 HR | .325/.353/.473 | 5 BB | 24 K

Yennsy Diaz, pitcher
Acquired: Signed as international free agent in 2014
Season to date: 2.38 ERA | 41.2 IP | 21 BB | 39 K

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