Why this Detroit Tigers prospect says he’s ‘the steal of this draft’ already

Detroit Free Press

Felecia Evans-Smith wanted her son’s “first day of school” picture — for the last time.

“Have somebody take your picture,” she told her son, Dylan Smith, who was also the Detroit Tigers‘ third-round selection in the 2021 MLB draft.

So this professional baseball player — who had already signed a $1.1 million contract with the Tigers — posed for a picture in his room at the Residence Inn in Lakeland, Florida. He had already begun training at the Tigers’ complex, throwing and lifting weights, while taking a full load of classes at Alabama to finish his bachelor’s degree.

It was one person going down two profoundly different tracks at once.

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“We’re a family full of educators,” his mother said. “Just people that are going to go get master’s degrees, everybody wants degrees. That’s a thing in our family.”

She made sure that he finished at Alabama, even if he had to contact all his professors to get permission to work remotely. “No one can ever take your education away,” she told him. “All I care about is that you get a degree.”

Dylan did as he was told, graduating in 3½ years. He is determined and grounded, two more factors in a long list of things to like about this lanky righty from Alabama.

“I’m going to be the steal of this draft,” he said.

Those words might sound cocky and brash, but he didn’t say it that way.

No. When he said it, he just sounded confident.

That comes from another place.

Straight from his mother.

Chasing his baseball dream

Dylan’s parents divorced when he was 5, and Felecia raised him by herself. “Honestly, it’s been hard, but it’s been fun,” she said. “It’s been worth it. Because my whole thing is this: You can invest your time and money in anything, right? So what is better than in your kid?”

She stressed education to Dylan, kept him busy, never let him quit anything and kept him surrounded with positive role models. “You never make excuses for your kids,” said Felecia, who works as the director of planning and infrastructure for Fort Bend County, Texas, where they live. “You always give them what they need to succeed.”

Dylan experienced diverse situations growing up — by design. He went to a Christian elementary school, a Jewish middle school and a Catholic high school: “And we are Baptist!” she said, laughing. “I wanted him to have a diverse background because that’s how the world is.”

She laughed again, memories coming back: “My son wanted to have a bar mitzvah. I told him, ‘You can have a bro mitzvah.’”

He transferred to a public school when he was a junior so they could have enough money to travel the country playing baseball. He was chasing his dream, but they lived it together.

“We came up with an agreement,” she said. “When I took him out of private school, I was paying probably $17,000 a year for school. I said, ‘Dylan, what’s the plan?’ He said, ‘I will pay for all my football camps, if you take care of baseball.’ He’s very frugal — he doesn’t like when I call him cheap — so he’s frugal. He paid for his football camps, and I paid for the baseball camps. I ran those credit cards like crazy, but I paid them all off. Because I don’t believe in having debt.

A slow grower, Dylan was just 5 feet 3 when he started high school. He had tried every sport — soccer, gymnastics, track, football, basketball and baseball, of course. “When he got to high school I made him choose two,” Felecia said. “He chose football and baseball.”

His first Division I scholarship offers came in football. He played quarterback, wide receiver and safety. “He didn’t have a baseball scholarship until his senior year,” Felecia said. “Honestly, I tried to get him to choose football. He told me no. He wanted baseball. When he got those D1 football offers, I started getting nervous as a single mom. I’m like, ‘Dude, I paid all this money. We are going to have to take a scholarship at some point.’

“He said, ‘Not yet. I wasn’t going without baseball.’”

Coming out of high school, he was drafted in the 18th round by the San Diego Padres. Felecia didn’t get him an advisor — the NCAA’s term for an agent — because she didn’t think he would be drafted very high and would go to college. “The whole weekend was crazy,” she said. “I personally wanted to see what that was going to be like, so I let those calls come to us. I knew the draft. I had read all these books.”

When a team tried to offer $500,000 for one slot, she knew the value was $750,000.

“I said, ‘It’s not happening,’” she said. “I felt like I was like a mom-ager at this point.”

Dylan wanted to take the money. “He was so upset with me,” she said. “He didn’t understand the vision at first. I was like, ‘You’re gonna need to be educated. You’re not mature from a mother perspective.’”

They turned down the money. “We were on our way to Alabama,” she said. “They were trying to piecemeal some money together, but we committed to Alabama. He gave his word.”

Alabama was his dream school. Dylan loved how Alabama was building. How the Crimson Tide was going through a transition.

Because every transition is an opportunity.

“He wanted to build,” she said.

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Smith was rail-thin when he went to Alabama, standing 6-2 but only 145 pounds. As a freshman, he was used out of the bullpen. “Coach told me I needed to mature a little bit more, so he put me in a ‘pen,” Dylan said.

He was throwing 89-92 mph and could touch 94. “I just had a very whippy arm and could spin the ball really well,” Dylan said.

But he needed to grow up off the field.

“Dylan had been with his mama all his life, and he’s the only child, so he needed to grow,” Felecia said. “He had some growing pains in there, which I was okay with, because he needs to man up, you know. Dylan had some tough-love things going on, and he just needed to mature a little bit.”

None of this should be surprising. Doesn’t that happen with just about every kid who goes off to college?

“But when it’s time to show up and show out, he gonna give you what he needs, if if he’s given the opportunity,” Felecia said. “So whenever he was given the opportunity, he did what he was going to do. He was locked in; that’s exactly how he operates.”

In his first two seasons at Alabama, he threw just 23 innings while posting a 6.26 ERA.

That included a sophomore season shut down by COVID-19 after he had pitched only 6⅓ innings. “I went home and got bigger, got stronger,” Dylan said. “I came back about 185 pounds.”

Suddenly, he was sitting 93-96 mph, and the scouts were taking notice.

“I wasn’t on anybody’s radar until the fall of my junior year,” he said.

He ended up throwing so little in college — just 98.1 innings in 2021 — that his arm is still fresh.

Which is a tremendous asset in the eyes of a professional team.

Now, through weight training and better nutrition — the Tigers have put a heavy emphasis on nutrition for their minor league teams — he’s up to 193 pounds.

Dylan throws a four-seam fastball that tops out at 97 mph — a pitch that sinks naturally and sometimes cuts. He also throws a curveball that drops from 12 to 6 — a pitch he makes even tougher because he can manipulate the speeds.

“What’s your best pitch?” I ask him.

“Okay, I think it’s my curveball,” he said. “But people think it’s a slider.”

“What does the analytics say?”

“Everyone thinks my slider is my best pitch when, really, it’s the curveball,” he said. “I just manipulate it, and it creates this third funky breaking ball. The grips are the same, but sometimes when I tend to fall off, it creates a ‘slurve’ action. It creates this slider effect late. It is actually one of my strikeout pitches.”

He struck out 113 batters with just 20 walks in 98⅓ innings in 2021.

But that curveball, too.

“I can manipulate the speeds on that from 78 to 81 (mph),” he said. “And then I can get up to 86. Like I said, that third breaking ball is that pitch.”

California was too taxing

Felecia has kept folders of her interactions with different teams — she’s a paper person.

“Were the Tigers in contact with you, or did that come out of the blue?” I asked.

“Came out of the blue,” she said. “He was on the phone with the California teams. But Dylan is very cheap. No, frugal. They have those high taxes. He was like, ‘No, no, no.’ He didn’t want to go to the California team. He had a couple of California teams reach out to him way early. He’s like, ‘No, the taxes are gonna eat me up.’ ”

When the Tigers picked him, he thought it was perfect.

To join a team that is building. An organization on the rise.

Just like Alabama.

“Making a name for yourself,” Felecia said. “Being a part of the organization that is growing, being a part of the rebuild process. Being a key part of it. He was like, ‘That’s all attractive to me.’ ”

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Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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