He had hoped, as the Tigers had, to finish with a flourish his High-A apprenticeship this summer at West Michigan.
Dylan Smith pulled it off. His last two starts were slick, defined most tellingly by Friday night’s work against Great Lakes when he put together six innings of two-hit, shutout baseball, spiced by six strikeouts against a pair of walks.
This was what he, and his team, had hoped for after Smith missed a month with a bad back that shelved him from June 25 to July 29.
“It was just a little tightness, and we wanted to be cautious,” said Dean Stiles, who is pitching coach at High-A West Michigan. “Since he came back, he worked his tail off, and to have that kind of finish (Friday) was a high note.”
Smith was the third player taken in the 2021 MLB Draft’s third round, 74th overall, three years after the Padres had made him an 18th-round gamble out of Stafford (Texas) High, hoping to coax Smith from his University of Alabama pledge.
Smith opted for college, and by 2021 was the Crimson Tide’s featured Friday night ace. He throws right-handed and is 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, with the latter number posing something of a challenge this summer.
“We needed to get his weight back,” Stiles said, explaining that a long first season of professional baseball had burned a few more calories than Smith had probably ingested. “But he came back (a rehab stint at Low-A Lakeland) with new life, and his fastball had new life.”
West Michigan wrapped up its 2022 season Sunday and just missed a playoff spot. Which means Smith’s season is done. His final numbers in 20 games (19 starts): 4.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 83⅓ innings, 78 hits, 86 strikeouts, 21 walks.
The focus, established as early as last spring, has been on firing that fastball to two sides of the plate. Smith has had more of a habit of throwing it away. Hitters were aware.
“His plan (Friday night) was to use his fastball more inside, to go more in and out,” Stiles said. “I think he threw 40 pitches (75 total) that were fastball strikes.
“This sets him up for his two different sliders, a finishing pitch that he used effectively (Friday). He’s got one that’s horizontal, and one that has more depth. I don’t want to call it (the horizontal slider) a cutter, but it has cutter characteristics, and, with his fastball, it sets up the slider that has more depth.”
Smith’s change-up is a forkball version.
“He’s separated those pitches, all of them,” Stiles said, “so they have significant pitch profiles. The split has downward action and is a problem for a left-hander (batter), and the slider is tough on right-handers. He’s done a nice job shaping those off-speed pitches from the front- or back-end of a count.”
The delivery man
Ignore that Saturday debacle. It was some impostor posing as Wilmer Flores.
Or, rather, it was Flores who was having that occasional stinker of a start.
It was nothing to obsess over, that one inning for Erie, against Altoona, which saw Flores last a single inning and get smashed for six hits and seven runs. Not when Flores might have some of the purest talent a Tigers prospect pitcher has featured since a kid named Justin Verlander arrived 18 years ago.
“This kid has a chance to be really, really good,” said Erie pitching coach Dan Ricabal, dissecting the 21-year-old Flores during a Saturday conversation. “Just from the standpoint of fastball delivery, that’s as good of a delivery as you’re going to find.
“He comes downhill (6-4, 225 pounds, right-handed) and really gets on top of a hitter. He can pitch at the top of the zone, or at the bottom, with an advanced slider.
“He’s a change-up away from being a top-of-the-rotation guy.”
Flores, of course, ranks — in addition to his natural gifts — as one of those endearing profile stories the ESPNs of the world love to show. He was signed — not drafted — in 2020 after pitching at Arizona Western (Junior) College in Yuma, Arizona. Wilmer had found his way there from Venezuela years after his older brother, also named Wilmer, had begun his career that now sees the elder as a big-league infielder for the Giants.
The Tigers have uncovered something akin to buried treasure. His season ERA ahead of Saturday’s throw-away inning was 2.47 at Erie. He has struck out 87 batters in 77⅔ innings in 2022 and walked only 19.
“He went through a little bit of a dead-arm period (mid-summer) but he grinded through it,” Ricabal said. “And, yes, he’s at kind of an infancy stage. But he checks all the boxes. Fastball at 93 to 97. Wipeout slider.
“Simply, the delivery itself is conducive to sustaining his stuff for a long period of time. The work ethic, the arm strength — the command is there, with an advanced slider and the curveball, all are getting better.
“Now, he’s starting to rip it (curveball) with two strikes. It was too slow. Now, he’s getting some chase with it. This kid has a legitimate chance at being top-of-the-rotation.”
If, of course, that final piece arrives: The change-up.
“He’s getting after it, but he hasn’t reached a level of trust with it,” Ricabal said. “It’s not there yet. That’s the big project this offseason. We need to get that change at a high level, where he’s using it at least 10 to 15% of the time. Once he does that…”
Well, his bosses know what’s next. And, so, perhaps does a pitcher who is quite unlike anything the Tigers farm has lately seen.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.