"He's not a guy that was really on the radar in Spring Training," manager Brad Ausmus said, "but he has pitched his way onto the radar over the first three months of the season."
Whenever Smith takes the mound, he will become the 14th player to pitch out of the Tigers' bullpen this season, a list that includes starters Drew Smyly and Robbie Ray and shortstop Danny Worth.
Smith has been a quiet success story for a Tigers organization that has struggled at drafting and developing relievers out of the middle rounds. Detroit took him out of USC in the 17th round of the 2011 Draft just two weeks after he had Tommy John surgery, knowing he would need a year of rehab before he could throw a professional pitch. Since Smith finally got into the system two summers ago, however, he has consistently delivered at every level, which made for a quick trip through the organization.
Smith was not on the radar entering the season because he had not pitched above Class A ball. Smith spent all of last season at West Michigan, but he pitched well enough to skip Class A Advanced Lakeland and open the season at Double-A Erie. He needed just seven outings there in April to earn a call up to Triple-A Toledo, where he has picked up where he left off.
Add up the two levels, and Smith posted a 5-2 record, 1.80 ERA and .220 batting average allowed. His stuff has the potential to translate to the big leagues.
"I didn't think it was going to be this early in the season," Smith said of his big league shot. "I was thinking maybe something later in the season or maybe next year. But it was clicking. I was throwing well."
Asked what clicked, Smith said: "My overall command of my fastball and my sinker down in the zone. I'm throwing the ball where I want to throw it for the first time since the surgery."
Smith's surgically repaired right arm can still throw in the mid-90s. More importantly, he throws it with sink, resulting in a 1.87 ratio of groundouts to flyouts with the Mud Hens. That ratio was 2.83 with Erie. At the same time, he is posting a near-even ratio of strikeouts to innings pitched.
"The catcher kept calling it, I kept throwing it and they weren't hitting it," Smith said of the sinker. "I just kind of rolled with that, sinker-slider pitcher."
Smith replaces hard-throwing Evan Reed, who was designated for assignment Wednesday morning after his month-long struggles dropped him from early-season bullpen savior to essentially a long reliever.
Reed's 4.88 ERA was essentially split between two stretches. He held opponents scoreless in 13 of his first 16 appearances this season, posting a 2.81 ERA, then gave up 19 hits over 11 2/3 innings in his final 11 appearances. While his strikeout rate rose, so did his damage as he struggled to keep his pitches down.
"I don't know that his pitches weren't working -- it's that he wasn't commanding the pitches, and he was getting behind hitters," Ausmus said. "He's at his best when he attacks the hitters. He's got a power arm and the ability to pitch at the Major League level. But he's got to get more consistent with his mechanics, especially with his slider."
Before he was released, Reed said he was executing his pitches but having trouble keeping them down in the zone. The Tigers have 10 days to trade Reed, release him or outright his contract to Triple-A Toledo. Because Reed was also designated last year with the Miami Marlins, he has the option of declining an outright assignment and becoming a free agent. If he did, however, he would forfeit his Major League contract.
Reed has been under investigation since April for an alleged incident with a woman at a downtown Detroit hotel on the weekend before Opening Day. Prosecutors reportedly have investigation results from Detroit police but have not decided whether to file formal charges.