Since being drafted with the 26th overall pick in 2000, Smith has never topped .271 with his average and 19 homers marked his highest total. His 50 extra base hits in 2005 were a career-high, but it was accompanied by 144 strikeouts, which led the Southern League.
In the early part of the year, it appeared the third baseman was turning a corner. He was hitting .292 at the end of May but his power numbers were down. When he began to connect, his average dropped and five of his 18 jacks came in a three day span in July, all against Mississippi. It was ironic because Mississippi led the league with the fewest homers against.
"He has all the tools," said Bill Bryk, the Padres minor league field coordinator. "He is just starting to scratch the surface. He might have been a guy that was rushed because he was a first round pick. A change of scenery over with us – I think he has a lack of confidence."
Smith never looked comfortable at the plate. He whiffed 25 times or more in each month, minus September, and didn't come through in the clutch. His .237 average with runners in scoring position (RISP) didn't live up to his position in the batting order – primarily as the cleanup hitter. His average dipped further to .215 with RISP and two outs.
The 23-year old prospect was choosing bad pitches to swing at throughout the year. He went to the Instructional Leagues this fall, the only Double-A hitting prospect to do so, before heading out to the Arizona Fall League (AFL). The idea was to embed better strike zone judgment into his skull and he came away equipped with a new stance courtesy of Rob Deer and a new approach to the hitting game. It appeared to payoff in the AFL; he hit .330 with six doubles, seven homers and 21 RBI's in 24 games while whiffing 21 times.
A short-stint in the AFL does not a career make and the AFL has become a hitter's haven.
The Padres were encouraged by his play in the Arizona Fall League and would like to give him every opportunity to make the Triple-A roster.
"I am hoping what he did in the fall will really help him going into the season," added Bryk. "He impressed some guys, not only in our organization but also around baseball that he is turning it around. We will see what happens. I don't want to get too excited about the fall because for me it is what they do during the season that is most important."
Smith has seen three seasons with 140 or more strikeouts. That would be acceptable if he added a good ten homers to his yearly totals and hit around .280. He has not accomplished either feat in five minor league seasons.
Smith's defense was also a mind numbing experience. Smith would make the dazzling play one minute and botch the routine play the next. And ultimately it is the routine grounder that he must handle.
He led the Southern League in errors among third baseman and tied for second in all the minors in errors at the hot corner with 35. With defense a primary concern at the big league level, his stock took an even bigger hit. A manager needs to be sure that the guy he has out there will make the play.
"I think it is a lack of concentration," Tony Franklin, the Padres' minor league roving fielding instructor, said. "It is a little showboating. It is a mixture of a lot of those things. The important thing they have to understand is you have to catch those routine ground balls because someone is going to start saying you are not capable of doing that if you make 45 errors or even 30 or 20 because they actually become unacceptable. That is what I try to emphasize as well as your basic fundamentals. We have to make plays. That is the name of our game."
"You have to be able to make those plays a little bit more consistently," Tony Franklin, the Padres roving infield instructor, said. "If he can do that, he has a great chance of playing in the big leagues and he has a chance of doing it fairly quickly to."
The defense is just a part of the game that needs fixing. He passed through waivers on his way off the 40-man roster this past year and not being added this fall. His new stance was successful in a short spurt but must be accompanied by a sound mind through the off-season. He has always had the talent and does not want to fall into the category of wasted talent. Smith will work hard – it is in his nature – but he must also transfer the tools he learns each off-season to the live game. That is one area he has failed to accomplish.
"The tools are all there," Bryk added. "He has power and the ability. He will make great plays in the field and blow the routine play. He has to work on concentration on both sides of the ball."
With Vinny Castilla entrenched at third for the year, Smith still has an opportunity in San Diego. He needs to follow through and his play will dictate whether he continues to be a true prospect or wasted talent.