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Big Leagues or Bust?

Big Leagues or Bust?

| On 08, Jun 2014

With the 2014 Major League Baseball amateur draft concluding this past week, the lives of hundreds of young high school and collegiate athletes have forever changed. Their dreams of playing professional baseball are one step closer to being fulfilled.

Being drafted in itself is an immense accomplishment. By no means, however, is it a ticket to the Big Show. Hard work, practice, perseverance, blood, sweat, tears, pain, injury, and absences from family and friends are only the beginning of the grind, and still in no way guarantee fulfilling the lifelong dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player. Too often, the end results are questions of “what if” and “what could have been”.

Just ask former Cleveland Indians’ first round draft pick Corey Smith.

“I’m old news. The one who didn’t pan out,” said Smith. “I think they moved me too fast. But that’s ancient history now.”

Fifteen years ago, Smith received the word that he was the Indians’ first selection in the 2000 amateur draft. Selected with the 26th pick out of Piscataway High School in Piscataway, New Jersey, Smith was touted as an athlete with many tools, including a big bat and a strong arm. He was almost immediately tagged as a potential third baseman of the future for the Cleveland franchise.

The Indians were in need of a third baseman, with Travis Fryman in the prime of his career and question marks throughout the minor league system to replace him. Russell Branyan, who debuted with the club in 1998 after being selected in the seventh round of the 1994 draft, had developed into a strikeout machine at the plate while displaying great power…when he made contact. In 2000, he hit 16 home runs in 67 games, but struck out 76 times while batting .238. Similar numbers plagued him throughout his career and he was traded by Cleveland to Cincinnati in 2002.

Smith was 18 years old and about to embark on his profession while most other teens his age were out living the life – spending time with friends, working meaningless jobs to make cash, or preparing for college in the fall.

Smith would find himself receiving a $1.375 million signing bonus and representing the Indians for their Burlington minor league club in the Appalachian League, where he was already two years younger than the average age of the position players around him.

He played 57 games that season and had 14 extra base hits scattered amongst his 53 on the short season. He hit .256 while working to become a third baseman.

Baseball America ranked him the club’s number three prospect after the 2000 season and rated him the best infield arm in their system.

He spent 2001 in the South Atlantic League with Columbus, the Indians Class-A club at the time. He played 130 games, hit .260, and showcased his power potential behind 26 doubles, 18 home runs, and 85 runs batted in, third best in the Sally League. He struck out at a high rate, with 149 in 551 plate appearances compared to 37 walks. His fielding percentage improved to .856, but he made 45 errors in 313 chances. Despite the downside, he attained the title of number one prospect in the organization and was 73rd in all of baseball, according to Baseball America following the 2001 season.

Smith continued his accent through the Indians farm system, spending all of the 2002 season at Class-A Kinston, the team’s advanced-A club. He played 134 games and hit .255. His numbers remained largely on pace with those established in years before – power potential (13 home runs, 29 doubles), an ability to drive in runs (67 RBI), but a tendency to strike out (141 for the season). The results in the field were more noticeably improved statistically, as in 16 more starts at third base with 67 more chances, he committed eleven fewer errors and improved his fielding percentage to .911. He was named to the Carolina League’s All-Star team that season.

His rapid climb through the minor leagues continued and, by 21, he was playing for Double-A Akron in 2003. He hit .271, a career-best at the time, and his strikeout numbers fell to 99 in 127 games. His power numbers dipped as well, as he hit just nine home runs to go along with 27 doubles while driving in 64. He had a strong second half of the season after a slow start, capped off by a .322 average with three of his homers and 30 of his RBI, but his glove remained a problem in the field. His fielding percentage dipped back to .865 at third base and he made 45 total errors on the season.

The inconsistencies, despite his steady rise through the minors, seemed to cause his stock to drop. Other potential third base prospects, including eventual Major Leaguer Kevin Kouzmanoff and former 2002 first round pick Matthew Whitney, were behind him but gaining on him. Baseball America dropped his stock to the 13th best prospect on the club after the season.

“We feel like Corey’s very much on the same pace that he came into the draft on – a five-year plan,” said current Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell back in 2003 while still the Indians’ farm director. “[He’s] a Northeast kid out of high school. We knew it was going to take some time. But the tools are all still there. We still feel he’s going to be an everyday Major League player.”

He started 2004 in Akron and played 128 games there as his power numbers (19) and strikeouts (106) returned and his average at the plate dropped (.249). He did get a taste of Triple-A action for the first time when he was advanced to Buffalo in late August for five games, hitting .111 with a single, double, and one run batted in.

His fifth minor league season completed, Smith was just 22 years old. Little did he know that his time with the Cleveland Indians organization was coming to an end.

“Those were the good old days,” Smith said of the years at the beginning of his professional career. “I made it to AAA by age 22. Then [I was] traded away so Alex Cora could get on the roster. They gave up on me. Too soon, in my opinion.”

On January 18th, 2005, the Indians signed the free agent utility infielder Cora to a two-year deal. To make room on the 40-man roster, Cleveland designated the former first rounder Smith for assignment. On February 2nd, he was dealt to the San Diego Padres in exchange for another former first round pick, Jake Gautreau. Like Smith, he had been tagged by the Padres as a piece of their infield future after being selected 14th in the 2001 draft.

A change of scenery was thought to do both players well.

Gautreau would spend all of 2005 and 2006 with the Indians at Triple-A, hitting .253 and .198 respectively. The second and third baseman spent a year with the New York Mets’ Triple-A club in 2007 and a year in independent ball in 2008 to conclude his professional career at 28.

Smith spent 2005 back in Double-A with Mobile of the Southern League and hit .254 with 18 home runs and 73 RBI. He struck out 144 times. The next season, with the Chicago White Sox’s Birmingham club (AA), he hit .238 with 12 home runs and 52 RBI in 120 games.

He spent the 2007 season playing in Newark in the independent Atlantic League and returned to some of the old form he had displayed. He hit .274 with 18 home runs and 72 RBI and struck out just 89 times in 119 games. The efforts seemed to pay off, as he found himself back in professional baseball with the Los Angeles Angels at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels for the next season, hitting a career-best 27 home runs and 82 RBI combined at the two levels.

At 27, he joined Northwest Arkansas, Kansas City’s Double-A team, for the 2009 season and hit 21 home runs and drove in 90.

“Ever since [the trade], it was really hard to advance, no matter how good the numbers were,” said Smith. “Numbers I’ve put up over the years have been better than several players promoted to the Big Leagues. I’m just not the guy they want, I guess.”

The Dodgers called in 2010 and he spent two seasons within their farm system, getting his first extended look at Triple-A in 2011 with Albuquerque. He hit .239 with seven doubles, seven home runs, and 22 RBI in 66 games.

He returned to Birmingham in 2012 and hit .286 with eight home runs and 39 RBI in 65 games before his exit from the club in late June. He signed on with Acereros de Monclova of the Mexican League, hitting nine home runs and driving in 30 in 27 games over the month of July before returning to the Independent League with Somerset. It gave him the opportunity to play with his younger brother Carlton, a former Indians 2004 draft pick and minor league pitcher.

Smith chipped away and produced at the minor league level, but the opportunities and the game seemed to continue to pass him by. Once several years younger than the average age of the other position players in the leagues he played in, he was now several years above the mean. Reaching the big leagues seemed a dream that he would no longer achieve.

“I love the game,” said Smith, “but I hate the game inside the game. I work my [butt] off and so far it’s been for nothing. I stay healthy and play hurt. I really have a football background. Hurt or injured, I’m not injured enough to sit out. I hate watching games, I want to play. I’m over the dream of the Big Leagues. I’m chasing the money now. I play to provide and because it’s all I know. And I’m good at it.”

Now 32 years old, Smith has kept his playing career alive to support his family back home after contemplating retirement following the 2013 season, even after welcoming a new addition to his family with the birth of another daughter this April. He is in his third season with Somerset, where he was hitting .308 with a home run and 20 RBI through his first 38 games after hitting .269 with 29 doubles, 20 home runs, and 84 RBI last season. He is sixth in the league in hitting, eighth in runs driven in, second in walks with 22, and tied for fourth with a pair of sacrifice flies.

He plays with the Patriots with several former Indians minor leaguers, including pitchers Matt Langwell and J.D. Reichenbach, catcher Damaso Espino, and infielder Nate Spears. Former Indians outfielder Shane Spencer is a coach on the staff.

He hopes that his efforts in the Atlantic League will lead to playing opportunities again, either within the system of Major League Baseball or over in Japan.

“[I’m] playing [independent] ball hoping someone in Japan sees what I can do. I hit homers and drive in runs. Every year.”

Smith still chases the dream, even if the dream is not the same dream he began his career with. In his Twitter profile, he uses the hashtag “#AintNoQuitInMe”, a more than adequate description for a well-traveled slugger playing his 15th season of professional ball.

The difficulty in assessing players like Smith and others when the draft comes around is that there are so many unforeseen variables that can get in the way. Injury potential, heart, development, and even being in the right organization at the right time, all play substantial roles in how quickly an athlete can blossom into the player envisioned.

Taking a look back just at the first round of Smith’s 2000 draft class, there were several players who did not miss and had lengthy Major League careers. There were plenty of others who, like Smith, failed to have their dream fulfilled and could be considered busts by their respective drafting ball clubs.

Adrian Gonzalez, now of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the first overall selection by the Florida Marlins out of high school. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays got several quality years from Rocco Baldelli, a high school selection, with the sixth overall pick. The Philadelphia Phillies stabilized their second base position with the pick of UCLA’s Chase Utley with the 15th pick.

Three picks after Smith’s selection, starting pitcher Adam Wainwright was taken by the Atlanta Braves with a compensation pick from the Arizona Diamondbacks for losing free agent pitcher Russ Springer. Wainwright signed a week later but was traded at the end of 2003 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the J.D. Drew trade and has since become a two-time All-Star, three times earned votes in the Cy Young voting, won 20 games in 2010, and twice led the league in wins, games started, and innings pitched.

Smith was the 16th high school player selected in his draft class and not the only player yet to appear in the Major Leagues. Eleven of the 25 players taken before him never reached the Show, a sound reminder that there is no guarantee that a first round selection is a one-way ticket to stardom. Only 23 of the 40 first round selections that year have played a Major League game, and only 16 of them played more than 50 games in their MLB careers. According to Baseball-Reference.com, only twelve posted positive WAR numbers in their career, and just five reached double digits (Utley, Gonzalez, Wainwright, Kelly Johnson, and Baldelli).

When it comes to the draft, not just in baseball, but in any of the professional sports, nothing is certain. Little is known. All of the tools and sabermetrics and face-to-face interviews have no way of predicting the future outcomes of the young men involved. It is a little luck, a little chance, and is all driven by the individual’s drive and given abilities. Sometimes even that is not enough. Prospects are just that – athletes with the potential to succeed at some point in the future. There is no guarantee of anything.

Baseball, as is the case for all professional sports in general, is just a child’s game. While some get to play and make millions based on a blessed genetic predisposition and do so naturally, others have to fight and claw just to continue to play the game. For many who played before with Big League dreams, those dreams were left unsatisfied.

To others, the game is a way of life. It is all they know. It is their means to provide and to survive. With the expectations placed on Smith by being a first round selection, his inability to reach the Big Leagues has him labeled by many a bust.

Smith is just one of thousands of similar examples. Despite that, he has persevered and, despite the feelings of inadequacy or not being “good enough”, he has played on, going to work every day to play a game to provide for the ones he loves.

Photo: SomersetPatriots.com