With college football’s National Championship game now behind us – and an outstanding one it was – and with the NFL’s Super Bowl game pretty much all that stands between us and spring training, it’s time that we once again start hearing the proverbial and often kidded-about phrase “I’m in the best shape of my life,” with pitchers and catchers due to report in exactly five weeks. But despite the misconception that spring training is the time to get in shape for a grueling 162-game season (and hopefully the postseason), the cold hard truth is that if a professional baseball player – especially a major league baseball player – is not already in shape by the first day of spring training, they are already way behind the power curve and risk being left off of the Opening Day roster.
It has long been held that spring training is more about pitchers building up arm strength in actual game-like conditions (aka: getting stretched out) than it is about position players getting into the best shape of their respective lives. That being said, spring training is also a time where coaches, players, the media and especially the fans get a real good look at their team’s catching depth.
Why, you ask?
Because with the abundance (or even over abundance) of pitchers in camp, there is also a need for an abundance of catchers; hence the annual overload of catchers being added to the non-roster invitee list each spring. And while it is understood that 28-year-old Yasmani Grandal will undoubtedly break camp as the Dodgers primary catcher and 27-year-old Austin Barnes his likely back-up, history has often shown us that the catching position – especially the back-up catcher – is often one of the last 25-man roster spots to be filled before the first pitch is thrown on Opening Day; a decision that often time boils down to who among the cadre of catchers had the most productive spring in those games in which the team’s primary catcher wasn’t behind the dish or swinging a bat.
All of this said, you can bet that one such catcher who will more than likely receive an invitation to big league camp (and receive a great deal of attention) will be 21-year-old catching prospect Will Smith, who the Dodgers selected in the first compensatory round of the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Louisville.
Although the Louisville native has virtually no chance of emerging from spring training on either the Dodgers 25-man or even 40-man rosters, he will get his first look at major league pitching – on both sides of the plate – for the first time in his very brief one-year professional career; a year that saw him skyrocket through the organization’s low and mid-minors and good enough to rank 11th on the Dodgers 2016 top prospect list.
In his first (and only) season of professional ball, Smith appeared in seven games with the Pioneer Rookie League Ogden Raptors, 23 games with the Low Single-A Great Lakes Loons and 25 games with the advanced Single-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. And though the soft-spoken and extremely polite young Kentuckian also saw time at second base (six games) and third base (eight games) with the Rancho squad, the bulk of his time was spent wearing “The tools of ignorance,” as Muddy Ruel first dubbed catching equipment back in 1915.
In his combined 55 games in the minors, Smith posted a somewhat pedestrian slash-line of .246/.355/.329 for an OPS of .684 – not horrible numbers but certainly not earth-shattering either. However, in those 55 games, the young right-handed throwing and hitting Smith committed only six total errors – two at second base, two at third base and two while catching – and zero while at Rancho Cucamonga. In other words, Smith had a perfect 100% fielding percentage in 132 total chances as the Quakes backstop, eight total chances at second base and 13 total chances at third base.
Although anything can happen and as popular Dodgers Triple-A catcher Jack Murphy so accurately pointed out last season “That stuff can change with a foul ball,” by every appearance Smith will probably begin the 2017 season back at Rancho Cucamonga or perhaps Double-A Tulsa. But you can rest assured that Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, general manager Farhan Zaidi, director of player development Gabe Kapler and just about every Dodger fan on the planet will be keeping a very close eye on the ‘Man in Blue’ Will Smith.