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Nostalgia Prospect: John Smiley

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Nostalgia Prospect: John Smiley

John Smiley was drafted by the Pirates in the 12th round of the 1983 draft, out of high school in Graterford, Pennsylvania, making him a nice home-state draft. Assigned to the Gulf Coast League Pirates, he went 3-4, 5.92 in 65 innings, with a 42/27 K/BB and 69 hits allowed. Very mediocre numbers. At this point, Smiley was basically a projectable guy with a good arm in rookie ball, but the same could be said for 100 other guys. Typical Grade C rookie ball prospect.

Smiley moved up to Macon in the Sally League in 1984. Although his 3.95 ERA in 130 innings was OK, he went 5-11, and posted a very mediocre 73/41 K/BB. His control was good but his strikeout rate was rather low. His velocity was starting to pick up into the lower 90s, but he needed work with his secondary pitches. Still a Grade C.

Returning to Macon in 1985, Smiley went just 3-8, 4.67 in 16 starts. But his strikeout rate increased by almost 50%, and the Pirates promoted him to Prince William in the Carolina League. There he went 2-2, 5.14 in 10 starts with a 45/27 K/BB. Scouting reports said he was starting to gain command of his pitches while his velocity continued to climb. Stat-wise, this showed up in the improved K/IP, but his other numbers were still just mediocre. These hints of improvement would possibly raise his grade to C+.

Smiley returned to Prince William in 1986, but with a different role: closer. He did well, saving 14 games with a 3.10 ERA and a 93/40 K/BB in 90 innings, allowing just 64 hits. His velocity was higher in relief work, although his command still needed improvement. The Pirates were impressed enough with his progress to give him a cup-of-coffee in the majors, and he did well, allowing six runs in 12 innings with a 9/4 K/BB, not bad at all for a guy coming directly from A-ball. Grade C+ would still be an appropriate grade, given that he had no experience in Double-A or Triple-A and that his control was still an issue.

Unexpectedly, Smiley earned a major league job in 1987 and spent the entire year in the Pirates bullpen. He flashed ability, namely a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a good slider, but was dogged by control problems. His 5.76 ERA and poor 58/50 K/BB ratio in 75 innings did not auger well for the future. Everything changed in 1988, however. Smiley moved into the Pirates rotation, going 13-11, 3.25 with a 129/46 K/BB in 205 innings. His metamorphosis from hard-throwing, wild bullpen arm to polished starting pitcher was extremely rapid. His velocity settled into the low 90s as a starter, but his curve, slider, and changeup all became reliable and consistent offerings. His command improved immensely.

Smiley spent the next three years in the Pirates rotation, pitching extremely well at times, and winning 20 games in 1991. Traded to Minnesota for prospects Denny Neagle and Midre Cummings in spring training of 1992, he went 16-9, 3.21 in a solid campaign for the Twins, but then joined Cincinnati as a free agent, signing a five-year contract for almost $5 million per season. He pitched four and a half years for the Reds, but was dogged by various injuries, though he continued to pitch quite well when healthy. Traded to the Indians for the stretch run in 1997, he broke his pitching arm after six starts for Cleveland, essentially destroying his elbow. He never pitched in the majors again, his career over at age 32. Career record 126-103, 3.80 ERA, with 1284/496 K/BB in 1908 innings, ERA+ 102.

Comparable Pitchers to John Smiley:

Ross Grimsley
Tom Browning
Bob Ojeda
Bud Black
Denny Neagle
Bill Lee
Johnny Antonelli

Smiley is an example of a Grade C/C+ prospect made good. His minor league track didn't really stand out as anything special. He had no experience in Double-A or Triple-A, and his stunning improvement after moving from the bullpen to the rotation in 1988 was certainly unusual. Pitchers are Unpredictable. It's good to remember that dictum works both ways: Grade A pitching prospects often fail, Grade C pitching prospects can surprise us.