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Blue Jays farmhand Chris Smith: an arduous journey through the minor leagues

He was released after one inning in pro ball. He’s signed a professional baseball contract for zero dollars. He’s fractured his forearm. Most recently, the New York Yankees sent him packing, despite an excellent 2.65 ERA across two levels this season.

But it doesn’t matter how much adversity 26-year-old reliever Chris Smith has faced, he always finds a way to fight back. Currently pitching for the Dunedin Blue Jays in the High-A Florida State League, Smith has a 2.65 ERA with a 37/6 K/BB in 37 innings.

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chris and discuss his beginnings as pitcher, his journey through the minor leagues, and his future as a pro baseball player.

"The first two years  in college I started at shortstop and the last two years I played in centerfield. But during one series where we were short on pitchers, my pitching needed arms. So he asked me if I would give it a shot on the mound. I started throwing and messing around. Next thing you know I was a two-way guy. I was hitting half-a-day and then I would throw a bullpen session at night. I loved it. I enjoyed the opportunity to play every day and then close out games whenever they needed me."

Pretty soon, though, Smith ceased to be a two-way player. He converted full-time to pitching after graduating from Kentucky Wesleyan University, attempting to put his best foot forward for pro ball.

"It was my senior weekend and my manager told me, "not too many people can throw a fastball at 92; give pitching a chance, see where it takes you. You’ve only been pitching for this year so you might even gain a couple more miles per hour. Let’s go to a workout and see how you do." It was hard to put my position player career aside, but I just wanted the best chance to stick. So I went to a workout for the Frontier League and got picked up from there. I’m glad I made that transition because it’s gotten me to where I am right now."

Smith debuted as a pro in the 10th inning of a tie ballgame for the Lake Erie Crushers. After allowing three batters to reach base, Chris surrendered a game-sealing grand slam. The next day, he was gone. His dream of playing in the majors faded with him.

"I went home after being released, started working at a gym. No one contacted me for that entire season. I didn’t understand it at the time, because I’ve always been the better player on my teams. I’ve never had people tell me they don’t want me. I went to a couple workouts. I did really well. I felt like I was gonna get a shot somewhere else. The thing is, I didn’t really have the pitching experience in college to translate into professional ball. Even in independent ball, teams were reluctant to give me a chance because they are not about developing players. They are here to win. They didn’t feel I was there to help them win, especially due to my inexperience. They weren’t going to give me a chance."

But during the November of that offseason, an opportunity arose from a surprise team.

"Then the Traverse City Beach Bums, the team I actually threw that one inning against and gave up that grand slam, called and wanted me to come to a workout. That’s when I realized, maybe I have another shot at this thing."

The Beach Bums would become Smith’s second team to grant him release 3.1 innings into his season. He would find another job with  the White Sands Pupfish the Pecos League in New Mexico. But it would come at the hands of a healthy pay cut.

"The contract was shocking. When I got there the team was based in a town in New Mexico I had never heard of. I walked to the clubhouse, which is up in the press box behind where they announce games. It was a single room with two benches. Their manager, his name was Keith, handed me a piece of paper to sign. And, to be honest, it was clear the contract was written on Microsoft Word. I looked at it and it said, "You’ll be playing for $0".  I was like "Oh My God". I called my parents. "Mom, Dad, I am about to sign a contract, a professional baseball contract" I said, "that is about to earn me zero dollars." They were just like "Chris, stick with it. It is going to pan out. You are going to get some exposure there. It is still baseball, you are going to be fine." So I signed the deal."

Smith did extremely well in the Pecos league, posting a 1.41 ERA  and .938 WHIP in four starts (five games). That earned him another chance in Independent Ball on the east coast. And with the Washington Wild Things of Frontier league, his career took off. I asked Chris what the keys were to his newfound success in pro ball.

"Having experience in the Pecos League and putting up big numbers out there gave me more time and a longer leash that I hadn’t had in past stints as a professional. Another big reason for my success was the the opportunity to work with Mark Booey, the pitching coach now with the Brewers and Darren Eaverson, now the Double-A hitting coach for the Rockies. They were so good at trying to make me the best pitcher I could be. I remember one time in 2011, it was the first inning and the first six guys got on and they all scored. It was like a merry-go-round out there. My manager, Darren came out and ripped me on the mound. He said some explicit language I’m not allowed to say and told me, "You deserve to be here. Pitch like you deserve to be here. Go out there and attack the hitters like you know you can. You have the stuff to be here. Trust yourself." Then he gave me a nice little whop on the butt and walked to the dugout. And after those six runners got on, I didn’t allow a hit for another six innings. I think then it really occurred to me that I do deserve to be in professional ball. It was huge confidence booster. Now, coming into 2012, I had that confidence that I could get hitters out at the level."

In 2012, Chris’s already solid statistics improved markedly. He finished the year with a 2.92 ERA and a 8.2 K/9 ratio for the Wild Things in nineteen starts. He also threw a career-high 130 innings that season. But the righty still wanted to get better and more comfortable on the mound. He didn’t care that if might mean playing on a different continent.

"I came up to my manager in Washington in August of my 2012 season and I was like, "I want to play Winter Ball somewhere. Can you help me get looked at, somewhere, anywhere? I’m feeling good. I’m ready to go." So that’s when he contacted David Nielsen out in Brisbane, Australia. His brother is the pitching coach for the Brisbane Bandits. They flew me out there. I had to pitch in a club ball setting, which is where ABL guys go to get ready for the ABL season. And then afterwards I went to the ABL, pitched in the ABL, put up some really good numbers and broke a strikeout record over there."

Ultimately, the Kentucky native’s years of toiling in unaffiliated ball paid off. His incredible strikeout numbers in Australia caught the eye of an Astros scout, who planned to sign him for Spring Training. When the deal fell through, Yankees jumped at the opportunity to ink the up-and-coming righty. Smith signed with New York in the spring of 2013,

Winning is the sole purpose of independent clubs. But in the affiliated minor leagues, development and personal improvement reigns king. Chris now had the chance to deal with a staff that was committed to bettering him as player and growing his game. Unfortunately, Smith’s dramatic uptick in innings pitched from the 2011 to 2012 season caught up to him. He tried to avoid the disabled list and pitch through a clear forearm injury. But soon it became clear 2013 was going to be a lost season for the right-hander.

"My forearm started flaring up in Australia. Then I threw to a hitter in Spring Training and I felt it. I was like "Uh-oh". I tried to throw the next day. I told myself, "You’ve got to fight through it. You can’t be hurt. They’re gonna let you go." I couldn’t fight through it. I ended up having a stress fracture in my forearm that kept me out the entire season. It was awful because at first they told me that the stress fracture would heal in six weeks at most. I thought, "Okay, I can handle that. I can play on a team in mid-June, early-July." Then in six weeks they said there was no healing. Then they said they would get another CT scan at 8 weeks. And after 8 weeks there was no healing. I was like, "Oh my gosh, is this something that will ruin my career. Am I ever going to throw again?" In week 12, the healing wasn’t done but it was far enough along that I could start throwing. At that point my season was over. I was nervous. I thought, "Now I don’t have a shot at all to showcase myself to the Yankees because of my injury." I didn’t know if I was going to be able to bounce back."

Ironically, Smith believes that the injury did not set his development back but actually moved it forward.

"I think, eventually, the year off might have been a blessing in disguise. I came back the next season throwing harder than I ever had. And even this season, I have been throwing harder than normal as well. So, it’s something that encourages me. I feel like I have so much gas left in the tank. I have so many bullets left in my arm. It’s a good sign. There’s no issue with my forearm at all. I haven’t had any flare-ups, any pain, or any issues since that forearm got hurt."

The odds were certainly not in favor of a converted-pitcher from a Division II school becoming a successful pro. He has already accomplished that feat. Yet, the odds still are against the 26-year-old as he now pitches in High-A ball for the Dunedin Blue Jays. But if there is anything I’ve learned by talking to Chris Smith, it is that this man only gets better when he’s dealt a tough hand. I’m rooting for more success from the right-hander as he continues his trek to the majors.

"I once thought that I wasn’t panned out for pro ball. But now I know I have the ability. I just need the opportunity. In baseball, they love these young guys, but I’m a young 26-years-old. I feel like I’m 21-years-old. My arm feels like its just now getting to college. I love waking up every day knowing that I get to go to the baseball field and have an opportunity to compete on the mound. I thoroughly enjoy this game and I feel like I have the stuff to pitch in the big leagues. There are gonna be times when this game punches you in the gut. I take a lot of punches. But I feel like I have been able to show teams how tough I am through my perseverance. Hopefully, that’s enough to get someone to recognize me again."