23-year-old, '07 1st Round pick Josh Smoker was left off the Washington Nationals' 40-Man Roster recently when the Nats decided which prospects to protect in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. Baseball America's J.J. Cooper and Matt Eddy both speculated that the 6'2'', 200 lb left-hander is the sort of pitcher teams might take a chance on this week, especially after Smoker enjoyed some success at Class-A Potomac this season following a move to the bullpen where he worked predominantly as a situational lefty. In 46 games and 50.2 IP this season, Smoker had a 2.31 ERA, a 4.38 FIP, 37 walks (6.57 BB/9) and 56 K's (9.95 K/9).
The Calhoun, Georgia-born left-hander appeared on MLB Network Radio's The Baseball America Show on Sunday night.
Baseball America's JJ Cooper said in the introduction that scouts he talked to this past season said Smoker's, "...stuff's back. The stuff's there. It wasn't there in the past, but it's back now." Smoker told the hosts his transition to the bullpen has gone well. "I was a starter the last three years, I had surgery in '08 and had a tough time coming back from it. Never could get the velocity back up to where I wanted it. So, we had just finished up [a series] in Rome, [GA], and I believe I started the last game and had kind of a rough outing and the skipper called me in the office and told me that the Nationals wanted to move me to the pen and [I] didn't really know how to take it at first, but after I got that first outing out of the way I really liked it. It's a lot different than starting, man, I'll tell you that much. You get that pump that you don't get as a starter and I really enjoyed it."
Smoker said he does miss the routine of starting now that he's in the pen. "But at the same time," the lefty explained, "As a starter, you have one bad outing you have to wait five days until you get to get out there and redeem yourself, whereas, as a reliever, you've got the opportunity to pitch every single day. And to be honest with you, I would rather pitch every day than every fifth day. I love playing baseball and the more I get to play the happier I am."
The Nationals' '07 1st Rounder said he continues to throw pretty much the same selection of pitches he did as starter, but he's been focusing on improving his curve recently. "Really, the only thing we're trying to change," Smoker explained, "is to get my breaking ball a little bit harder. It was a little bit soft as a starter and hitters were able to pick it up a little bit earlier. Really, as far as the pitchers go, I'm trying to keep everything the same and just trying to be a little more aggressive. That's one thing I struggled with as a starter, I felt like I was kind of timid at times and I think that really got me into trouble."
Smoker said he embraced a more aggressive approach coming out of the pen and finally found his velocity again. "The last few years, I had the surgery," the pitcher said, "And did the throwing program and all that and my first full year back got a little tendinitis, so that was kind of a pain in the butt. But really, with all that being said, I kind of got away from what I did in high school and that was to kind of go after hitters and not really worry about it. I think to a point, I was getting a little bit too much mechanical, and worrying too much about that instead of just being aggressive and going after hitters. So, I think having that aggression on the mound has really helped me a lot and given me a lot of confidence too."
The period of rehab he worked through, and the repetitive nature of the process Smoker said, "Was one of the hardest things I think I've ever been through, is having to get up that early and know what you have to do the whole day and just really not looking forward to it. And I think to an extent that was one of the things that kind of got me in trouble. I wasn't too much fun with it and you're exactly right, it's the same thing every single day, over and over and over. And I was talking with my family and talking with my agent a little bit and we finally just decided, 'You're stuck here until you prove you're ready to go you just have to deal with it.' And it was one of those things, you've got to keep going out and keep grinding, but to be honest with you it was definitely great to get out of there."
Smoker worked his way back and had his best season in the Nats' system in 2011, but his with his velocity back up and his stuff back to where it was, the left-hander could very well end up being a target in this week's Rule 5 Draft. Asked what he could offer a team that took him if they took a chance, Smoker said, "I've always been told that you can't teach competitiveness. Everyone worries about what 'this guy' can and can't do, whatever, but ultimately if he doesn't have that competitive edge I feel like there's nothing you can do with a guy. And to be quite honest, I'm probably one of the most competitive and probably the most hard on myself of anybody. And when I get out on the field, I leave it all out on the field with no regrets. And it is a game, so you kind of have fun every day, and the minute you quit having fun I think that's time to hang it up. But, really as far as being on the field, like I said, I'm just going to give it everything I've got every single day."
If anyone takes Smoker this week he'll have to spend the entire year in the Majors or be returned to the Nats if a deal can't be worked out. The Nationals might lose an '07 1st Round pick who had his best season at just the right/wrong time. A former 1st Round pick for $50,000, as the MLB Network Radio hosts noted, that's a risk some team out there might take.