Confident Smith (No. 7 prospect) turning heads at minicamp

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — There were no bats flying over dugouts and screens on the back fields at Tigertown this time as Dylan Smith worked his way through a handful of hitting prospects in Minor League minicamp. But he wasn’t getting hit around, either.

Smith gave up a solid line drive to Austin Meadows, but not much else. He also coaxed a couple swings and misses from Meadows and changed speeds brilliantly on Gage Workman, who was way out in front on an offspeed pitch before freezing on a fastball for a called strike.

It was Workman’s second showdown against Smith in six days.

“He looked really good,” Workman said after the first encounter. “His ball was jumping, and he had a tight slider.”

If Smith, the Tigers’ No. 7 prospect per MLB Pipeline, came to Tigers Minor League minicamp with something to prove, he’s on the right track so far. In fact, the right-hander has been doing that ever since he showed that someone with 23 innings over two seasons at Alabama could rise so quickly he’s flashing hints at having the stuff of a frontline starter — and a low-key nasty pitcher.

“I feel like for me, the biggest thing is proving myself to these guys,” Smith said Wednesday. “Showing that I’m worthy of what I am and going out and dominating so I could find myself with the Tigers soon.”

It’s an aggressive, confident approach. But so is Smith’s way of pitching.

The Tigers love Southeastern Conference pitchers like Detroit loves Coney Island restaurants. They’ve selected at least one SEC hurler in 16 of the last 18 drafts, with the five-round 2020 Draft being one of the rare exceptions. Often, Detroit has drafted them early.

Smith, however, wasn’t a prototypical prospect. Though he was a Rawlings Perfect Game All-America honorable mention out of high school in 2018, he pitched in just 13 games as a freshman in the Crimson Tide bullpen and had almost as many walks (11) as strikeouts (12).

He had an excellent summer ball season in 2019, but logged just 6 1/3 innings before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 season.

His ascent last year was sudden, but it was the culmination of a ton of work to become a stronger, more effective hurler.

“I feel like last year was the first time I really had an opportunity to go prove myself,” he said. “I’d never really had that chance, and now that I had that chance, I took it and ran with it, and I didn’t let anyone take it from me.

“I didn’t give it back. I just kept working on my game, from fastball location to spinning the ball really well and locating my offspeed, being able to throw multiple offspeed [pitches] for strikes.”

Don’t let Smith’s 2-8 record last season fool you. He struck out 113 batters over 98 1/3 innings, including an 11-strikeout win over Missouri and a pair of 10-strikeout performances in non-conference play. He had some struggles, too, including allowing 11 hits over 4 1/3 innings against Kentucky, but the ingredients for a solid pitcher were evident, his repertoire including a mid-90s fastball and a curveball and slider, with a splitter to change things up.

“Dylan Smith is a good athlete, still upside, a lot of room to fill in with the body,” Tigers scouting director Scott Pleis said when the Tigers grabbed him in the third round last July. “Delivery works great for a starter.”

It’s a delivery with late explosiveness, allowing his fastball to play up. And it all plays well into his attitude.

“You have to attack,” he said. “I feel like it’s the biggest part of my game: Attack the zone and let the hitters get themselves out. If I do my job, then I feel like I give my team a chance to win the game.”

Doing so after not facing hitters in a game setting for eight months would seem tricky. He had that in mind when the Houston area native pitched live batting practice to a mix of pro and college hitters before he arrived.

The experience prepared him to work the zone against hitters, and the results have created some buzz in camp. While he has commanded the fastball well in various parts of the strike zone, his curveball has been sharp when he has executed.

The Tigers haven’t been shy about moving college pitchers aggressively through their system, starting them in High-A ball if they show they can handle it. Whether Smith takes that path or moves more patiently remains to be seen, and could be affected by how much pitching depth the Tigers build in the upper levels by the time the Minor League season starts in early April.

As first impressions go, Smith is off to a very good start.

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