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Future bright for Josh Smith in Reds' organization
Photo by Nick Falzerano/Dayton Dragons
Photo by Nick Falzerano/Dayton Dragons

Friday, July 22, 2011
by Sean McClelland

DAYTON, Ohio – Baseball is packed with stories of high draft picks who never make it and lower-round selections who become stars.

It seems pitcher Josh Smith, two years removed from the Lipscomb University campus, might be on his way to the latter category.

“We got lucky,” Cincinnati Reds minor league field coordinator Freddie Benavides freely admits. “He can really pitch.”

While Smith, 23, likely is a couple of years away from contending for a spot with the Reds, what a step the right-hander has taken this season with the Dayton Dragons, the Reds’ low-Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

A 21st-round pick in the 2010 amateur draft whose signing bonus – about $1,000 – was a pittance compared to what more heralded prospects receive, Smith started for the Eastern Conference in the MWL All-Star Game in June. The right-hander from Margate, Fla., worked a scoreless inning that night in Davenport, Iowa, and has been the ace of a Dragons staff that ranks among the league’s finest.

But Smith, who credits Lipscomb baseball coach Jeff Forehand and his staff for helping him get to this point, is far from satisfied. Even on his way to the All-Star Game, with a 1.59 ERA tucked away, the 2010 All-Atlantic Sun Conference first team selection was talking about improving. On his mind were such aspects of his craft as making every delivery look the same to keep hitters guessing, throwing more first-pitch strikes, concentrating on keeping the ball low in the strike zone, and limiting his walks.

He sounded more like a pitching coach than a pitcher.

“It sounds cliché, but I just want to get smarter,” Smith said. “I want to learn a little bit every day.”

There was plenty to learn at Lipscomb, and except for missing his sophomore season after having the reconstructive Tommy John surgery performed on his pitching elbow, Smith said he enjoyed his five-year stay.

“There’s nothing bad that I could say about that school,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. Nashville is different from South Florida, where I’m from, but I grew to love it. Baseball was great. We always played the best competition, being in (NCAA) Division I.”

In 2010, Smith finished fourth in the country in strikeouts, twice fanning 15 in a game. But his record – 8-4, 4.66 ERA – did not indicate dominance, scouts were lukewarm and, being a senior, he lacked the leverage of being able to return to school.

It all led to the Reds finally making Smith the 637th overall pick and assigning him to their rookie-league outpost in Billings, Mont, where he went 1-2 with a 2.14 ERA in 12 relief appearances last summer.

Promoted to Dayton in August, Smith repeated that success, posting a 1-1 record and 2.13 ERA in seven appearances, again all in relief.

The Reds were careful not to overwork Smith after he had made 14 starts for Lipscomb in the spring and completed four, including three straight nine-inning games during one stretch. But when the 2011 season dawned, Smith was the Dragons’ Opening Day starter, which showed how the Reds viewed him coming out of spring training in Goodyear, Ariz.

After five MWL starts, Smith was taking the league by storm, his ERA still below 1.00. Going into his July 24 start, his 18th, he was 9-4 with a 2.51 ERA and 117 strikeouts (and just 23 walks) in 100 1/3 innings.

“I’m not surprised at all at what he’s been able to accomplish,” said Dragons pitching coach Tony Fossas, who pitched 12 seasons in the majors. “I know Lipscomb because I coached at Florida Atlantic (in Boca Raton, Fla.) in the same conference. They play a competitive schedule, so he came here already developed.”

Off the field, the transition to Dayton has gone smoothly. Smith lives with a host family – and four other pitchers – in a large suburban house that features a home theater in the basement.

“Pro ball is a six-month grind and definitely a job, but we can sleep in every day, so that’s usually pretty nice,” Smith said. “We don’t have to get up and go to class.”

The next step up the organizational ladder is the advanced Class A team in Bakersfield, Calif., but the Reds appear reluctant to pack Smith off to a hitter-friendly California League locale where the center field fence is 350 feet from home plate, about 50 feet closer than most parks.

They have kept him in Dayton, where the Dragons are making a second-half playoff push and can certainly use him. And, fortunately, the Dayton baseball experience is exponentially better than Smith could hope to find just about anywhere south of the big leagues. The Dragons average more than 8,000 fans at a 12-year-old ballpark, Fifth Third Field, that could pass for new, and they recently eclipsed the professional sports record held by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers with their 815th consecutive sellout.

Reality intrudes on paradise every so often, though. Smith recently saw his friend Pat Doyle, a relief pitcher, move up to Double-A Carolina, then return to Dayton for a day before being sent back to Carolina and, ultimately, back to Dayton not long after that.

Welcome to life in the minors.

“It’s hard to see guys go that you played with who are your friends,” Smith said. “It’s a business, but anytime a guy leaves, it definitely puts that thought in your mind that you could be next.”

When it’s Smith’s turn, it’s hard to believe he won’t be ready.

Sean McClelland writes for the Dayton Daily News