Getting to know outfielder Tim Smith

When RC was in Springdale over the weekend, we got our first look at Tim Smith, whom the Royals acquired last September along with catcher Manny Pina in exchange for Daniel Gutierrez. On Saturday afternoon, we sat down with the outfielder to discuss his game, his approach, and his experience playing for Team Canada in the 2009 Baseball World Cup.

In early September, the Royals completed an unusual prospect-for-prospect trade, sending the talented but troubled Dan Gutierrez to the Rangers in exchange for Manny Pina and Tim Smith. For the Royals, the move addressed two areas of weakness in the minor league system – catcher and outfield. In Smith, the Royals acquired an athletic left fielder with good speed and above average raw power.

Smith took an interesting path to the Royals. He grew up in Canada before attending junior college and Arizona State University and was drafted three times before finally signing with the Rangers as a 7th rounder in 2007.

That summer, he debuted with the Rangers' Short-Season Class A club in Spokane, hitting .284/.396/.383 with one home run in 81 at bats. Smith had a breakout year in 2008 with the Low-A Clinton Lumber Kings, for whom he hit .300/.359/.450 in 480 at bats with 13 home runs, 25 doubles, and 21 stolen bases – excellent numbers for a player making his full season debut in the pitching-friendly Midwest League.

Last year, Smith continued to rake as he moved up to High-A. After just 35 games with the California League's Bakersfield club, he was promoted to Double-A. Unfortunately, injuries cut his season a bit short, as he missed time with both a broken finger and a rib cage injury. Still, in 74 games and 271 at bats between the Cal League, Texas League, and a short rehab stint in the Arizona League, Smith hit .321/.392/.465 with eight home runs and 17 stolen bases. While he was in Arizona finishing up his rehab for the rib injury, he was invited to join Team Canada as it headed to Europe to compete in the 2009 Baseball World Cup.

As the Canadian team was training in North Carolina and preparing to leave for the tournament, the trade was announced, and Smith was a Royal. Whatever disappointment he may have had about being traded, it certainly didn't negatively affect his performance in the World Cup. The 24-year-old hit .414 in the tournament – the highest batting average on his team – as Team Canada won the bronze.

RC got our first look at Smith over the weekend, and we came away impressed. He hits the ball incredibly hard, and he shows plus raw power in batting practice. He's a strong kid with a nice, mechanically sound swing that produces line drives to all fields, and he runs very well for a guy with a 6-foot-3, 220 lbs. frame.

Injuries have been his Achilles heel. He's had some arm problems that have set him back in the past, and last year's injuries cost him over a month of the season. Ironically, we asked him about his health in our interview on Saturday afternoon, and Smith said he felt great. Unfortunately, on Sunday he suffered another setback when he strained his quad stealing second base, and he had to come out of the game. The extent of the injury hasn't yet been announced, but hopefully he won't miss much time.

On the young 2010 season, Smith thus far is hitting .333 (5-for-15) with two doubles and an RBI for the Naturals. Our interview with Smith is presented below.

Royals Corner: First off, Tim, how are you feeling so far? You had a pretty nice game [Friday] with a couple of nice hits against a tough righty.

Tim Smith: It's still pretty early, and there's a difference between spring training and the actual games. It's nice to get the kinks out and get the actual game experience out of the way early. No matter how tough your mentality is, you're gonna be a little nervous, a little anxious. So it's good to get the early stuff done.

RC: Speaking of spring training, how did your first camp with the Royals go?

TS: It went really well. I got down there really early – I think I got down there on January 3. They have a different weight training and running program over here, so it was good to kind of adapt to that, and meet the staff, meet the players. There were a lot of new faces, and I still have trouble with names. It was good to get here early and learn a new system and learn new people. I think it was a benefit to come down early.

RC: You're a .300 career hitter, you've always had high on base percentages. What is your approach at the plate? What are you trying to do up there?

TS: When it comes to practice, you work on certain things here and there, but you've got to forget it all in the game and you've just got to get the job done. I think my success so far is from being mentally strong, rather than my physical tools, and just bearing down and staying within myself, staying fundamentally sound, and not trying to do too much.

RC: I know in the Rangers' system, you had a points system for quality plate appearances. Is there anything similar here in the Royals' organization?

TS: Not really. They still stress quality plate appearances. For instance, with a man on second base, you're gonna get your back slapped if you get the guy over to third base. Stuff like that. We're young hitters, young players, so they're still trying to teach us the game overall – just hitting situationally, how to become a better hitter. It's better for our career because if you get moved up to the big leagues, you're not going to be jumped up there in the three hole. You're going to be up there to be a table setter, so you've got to learn how to play an overall game.

RC: You grew up in Ontario. How'd you wind up becoming "Tim Smith, professional baseball player" instead of "Tim Smith, hockey player?"

TS: I don't know. It was tough to take the skates off. I got drafted out of Birchmount Park High School in Toronto, and there were some visa problems going on. It was 2004, and the scout recommended that I go the junior college route, because I'd have to sit out a whole year before I could sign. So I went to junior college in Midland, Texas. It's kind of weird because it's a place in the middle of nowhere that I never thought I'd come back to, and there I was playing there last year.

So at Midland Junior College, I had a good year, and I was drafted by the Brewers but decided to go to Arizona State. Then I was drafted by the Rangers, and here I am now. It's pretty cool. I went through a lot of adversity, and I think it's helped me out to become a better person, and get some experience under the belt.

RC: Last summer you got the opportunity to play for Canada in the Baseball World Cup. What was that experience like?

TS: It's hard to put it into words. Playing pro ball is every boy's dream. But playing for your country is something different. It's a sense of pride. You don't take your eyes off any single pitch, and everyone's got your back. It's a different ballgame when you're playing for your country. Not that we don't go hard here, but your whole country's on your back, and you're wearing your country's colors. It's the ultimate team game. You want to do anything you can to win the game. It's a little bit different than the minor leagues, where you're learning how to play as a player individually a little bit. The World Cup was pretty cool, and very special.

RC: Larry Walker was your hitting coach on the Canadian team. What was it like being around him?

TS: It was pretty awesome, especially for a guy in my situation. I'm left-handed and an outfielder. He was one of the easiest guys to go up to and talk to. Good personality, and a good clubhouse guy too. He jokes around. It was kind of weird. The first day I walk in there, I'm looking at one of my idols. And the next thing I know, he's helping me out with things. He's got your back. He's a hard worker, and it showed. I mean look at his career numbers – he's a guy you're going to trust. So it was pretty special to be able to work with him.

RC: You battled some injuries last years. I know you had a finger injury and a rib injury that knocked you out for a month or two. How are you feeling this year? Are you fully healthy?

TS: Yeah, I feel good. I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been. I was about 240 lbs. last year. Not that I was overweight or anything, but I was just kind of bulky. This year I'm under 220 now, so I feel a bit more athletic, a bit more agile. Hopefully my body stays up. Last year's injuries were kind of flukes – a broken finger and my rib. I was swinging off a tee in early work and my rib just went out. But I feel solid and feel a bit more flexible, so hopefully it pans out for the whole year.

RC: Speaking of that, you've been a 20 stolen base guy for the last couple of years. Do you think we'll see that type of speed again this year?

TS: Yeah, I'm looking forward to running. I kind of get overlooked everywhere I go just because I'm a bigger guy, and people just assume that I'm more of a gap power guy, and that's almost the complete opposite of my game. So I definitely want to run when I get on the basepaths, and they kind of gave me the OK to do so. I look forward to running. The Rangers are kind of known for banging the ball around and trusting their hitters. The Royals are more of a speed team. So we're going to do all of the little things – bunting, hitting and running, and stealing bases – so I look forward to trying that out.

RC: Lastly, how's your arm coming along? I know you've had some arm problems in the past.

TS: My arm feels good. The strength's there. It's just a matter of working on mechanics. Like on a play [Friday], my feet got moving too quick and I threw the ball into the ground. I slowed myself up the next throw and made a good solid throw. So it's just being consistent and staying behind the ball. My arm feels great, but it's just staying on my mechanics and being able to consistently do them, and carrying it over into the game.

RC: Thanks a lot for talking with me, and good luck with the rest of the season.

TS: I appreciate it.

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