DUNEDIN, Fla. – Chris Smith’s chances of reaching the big-leagues seemed miniscule this time last year. He was in spring training on a minor-league deal he had signed with the Toronto Blue Jays the previous summer, after the New York Yankees released him. As a non-drafted free agent with all of nine appearances above Class A, he wasn’t going to attract attention on pedigree alone when he reported to camp.
Smith himself tacitly acknowledged those slim odds, booking a cruise with his girlfriend to Cozumel, Mexico for late September, after the minor-league season ends. In the months that followed, though, he gradually made his way onto the radar of Blue Jays decision makers.
He started the season at double-A, ‘ecstatic’ to be the New Hampshire closer. Five months later, he had a 1.89 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 57 innings at double-A, enough to earn a brief promotion to triple-A in late August. Suddenly the big leagues weren’t so remote.
Still, when the Blue Jays announced their September call-ups, Smith wasn’t among them—at least not right away. Just in case something unexpected occurred, director of player development Gil Kim asked him to stay in shape at the team’s Dunedin, Fla. facility.
It was at that time that Smith remembered the non-refundable cruise. He told Kim he’d cancel if necessary, but admitted he’d like to go if at all possible.
“I’ll play catch on the boat if I have to,” Smith told Kim.
Given that the Blue Jays’ bullpen already included plenty of right-handed arms, Kim gave him the go-ahead.
“I go on the four-day cruise,” Smith recalled. “I go in the day I get back, I play catch, everything’s feeling good. I go ‘how crazy would it be if something happened today? It’d all work out perfectly.’ Sure enough, Gil Kim calls me.”
A calf injury had just sidelined Joaquin Benoit, leaving the Blue Jays short on relief as they began a crucial stretch of games. In need of another arm, Kim called Smith to tell him he was a big-leaguer.
“It worked out,” Smith said. “It was the best call of my life.”
Once again Smith has no guarantees in a crowded Blue Jays bullpen mix. But as last year’s unlikely ascent shows, opportunity exists for those who produce.
“It looks like he has a feel for what he’s doing,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “He knows where it’s going. A lot of times hard throwers, they scatter it. From what I’ve seen it looks like he can pitch a little bit. He’s got a really good arm, and good major-league bullpens now are full of those guys.”
As a reliever with minor-league options remaining, Smith can be sent to triple-A without having to clear waivers. That would seem to lessen his chances of breaking camp with the team given that the likes of Bo Schultz and Mike Bolsinger are out of options and would have to be exposed to other teams unless they’re on the MLB roster. Still, opportunities are sure to arise over the course of the season, perhaps more than ever this year now that MLB has implemented a 10-day disabled list.
“Everybody’s goal is to be at the major-league level, and I’m not shooting any shorter than that,” Smith said. “Control what you can control is the biggest thing I tell myself every day.”
At least the 28-year-old’s back to full strength after undergoing left knee surgery in October. It was a minor operation, ‘very routine’ and he was at full strength again within a month. Soon after the holidays, the Louisville native arrived in Dunedin for early workouts. “It’s a lot easier to find a catch partner here than it is back home,” he noted.
The work has paid off, with a real opportunity for Smith to impress the Blue Jays’ coaches and front office. Armed with a 95-mph fastball and an above-average slider, his chances of contributing at the MLB level aren’t so remote anymore.
“He’s got everything he needs,” Gibbons said. “He’s one of the priority guys we’re looking at. We want to see what he can do.”
As for Smith, he’s definitely not booking any cruises for this September.
“This year, vacation might be over the Christmas break,” he said. “Hopefully it’s past October. That’d be best-case scenario.”