Don’t forget Dylan Smith, a Tigers trainee, at Single-A West Michigan

Detroit News

Even the past year’s MLB Draft can slip rapidly into one’s mental murk.

Oh, yeah — when again was he picked?

Dylan Smith was the third player taken in the third round of last July’s MLB sweepstakes when the Tigers snagged him with the draft’s 74th overall turn. It was three years after the Padres had tried to land him with an 18th-round prayer as Smith rolled out of Stafford (Texas) High.

Smith was an ace at the University of Alabama only 13 months ago, a Friday night starter, which is when college teams tend to feature their showcase pitcher.

With his pedigree, with his performance, and with a 6-foot-2, 180-pound body and big right arm, the Tigers liked him — a lot. So much so that they paid him $1.115 million to sign. What they needed was for Smith to develop more strength and savvy, to show the brand of progress made in 2021 as he moved from Alabama’s bullpen to the rotation.

And they wanted during this first full season at high-Single A West Michigan for Smith to polish that four-pitch repertoire.

It’s getting there.

Smith, overall, had a pleasing Saturday-night, five-inning stint at Cedar Rapids (6-5 walkoff loss for the Whitecaps), getting nicked for four hits and two runs, while walking two and striking out five.

It came at the tail end of a month that had not been as good (7.58 ERA in five starts) as April (3.21 ERA) and May (2.16) had.

“Yeah, he started out really strong,” Dean Stiles, the pitching coach at West Michigan, said Sunday in appraising Smith’s first three months. “He has the ability to move his fastball in and out at will, and especially command the outer portion of the plate.

“But, as June came along, hitters started to see it, and to begin covering that area. What he’s done since, and what he really showed last night (Saturday), was ability to jam the ball inside. He really pitched well after the first inning.”

Ah, that swerving first:

Smith struck out the first two batters on seven pitches. Then, a single, walk, and triple — two runs home for Cedar Rapids. At that point, Stiles made a counseling visit and told Smith in emphatic terms to begin firing that fastball inside.

The remaining four innings: two hits, one walk, three punch-outs.

Those last four frames are closer to defining a four-pitch starter who four weeks ago turned 22.

‘His velo (velocity) is up a tick,” Stiles said. “He hit 96, 97 last night. We’ve really been working hard on some posture things, to move more freely, and he’s kind of taken to that. He’s been amenable to some drill work, using both sides of the plate.”

The remainder of Smith’s inventory? It’s there. Being groomed.

Smith has a slider — two, in fact. He has a curveball, and a change-up that’s really a split-finger forkball of the relative kind thrown by Casey Mize (Tigers starter, Tommy John surgery recovery).

“The off-speed is coming around,” Stiles said. “The slider has developed and is clearly separating from his curveball after they had kind of morphed together.”

As for the dual sliders, Stiles said, “One can have horizontal sweep to it, while the other has less horizontal and more depth, and can be used more as a finish pitch.”

The split-finger change-up became too tempting of an option during some of these June bang-ups, Stiles said. That now is a certified fourth pitch.

Focus has shifted to spotting the fastball and making those sliders distinctive and difficult to hit.

Smith earlier this season was overrun by other pitchers and their stories at West Michigan.

There was Wilmer Flores, lighting things up with his 98-mph fastball and wizardry that soon earned a bump to Double-A Erie.

And then there has been the spotlight status of Ty Madden, last year’s second pick by the Tigers (32nd overall) who had been a Friday night top-gun at the University of Texas.

Madden, steadily, has been moving through a first full season of pro ball at Comstock Park, as has Smith.

They were part of last year’s Tigers targeting of pitching and bid to re-stock a system that needed an infusion of good — and, preferably, experienced — arms.

They’re now at the stage where the Tigers can at least ponder chances they’ll help, if not next year, by 2024, in the same manner that Beau Brieske has pulled into Comerica Park to bring Tigers manager AJ Hinch rotation ballast.

Starting pitching has been — and will remain — a primary item, among many, on the Tigers’ critical-care list.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter

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