Will Smith has quickly moved up the Dodgers’ minor league system since they selected him in the supplemental first round (No. 32 overall) of the 2016 MLB Draft with the compensatory pick they received when Zack Greinke signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Smith, 21, had the opportunity to catch rehabbing Dodger starter Bud Norris on Saturday at Rancho Cucamonga the night I had the opportunity to speak with him. After the game, Norris had positive things to say about Smith.
“It was nice to work with Will Smith,” Norris said. “Wanting to play, good young kid. Had great hands. I’m just glad we went deep into the game.”
Smith became the first catcher to be drafted by the Dodgers in the first round since Paul Konerko in 1994, who dabbled at third base before settling at first base.
Smith described his experience on draft night when he found out he was selected by the Dodgers as special.
“Pretty exciting. Pretty special night for myself and then my teammates at Louisville,” Smith said. “We had four guys go that night. So we had everyone there on our team, and then our families were there. So, it was a special night.”
It’s been a whirlwind of a season for Smith, finishing up his college career at the University of Louisville in June then going on to begin his professional career with the Rookie-level Ogden Raptors. He was subsequently promoted after seven games to the Low-A Great Lakes Loons, where he hit .259/.375/.309 in 22 games. He was then promoted again to High-A, where he has been settling in since Aug. 2.
“Physically, I’m feeling alright,” Smith said. “I’m getting used to playing every day which is different than college. It’s been a pretty hectic summer being with three different teams and having to meet new guys every couple of weeks. But it’s been a good experience, and I’m looking forward to keep going.”
He’s still acclimating into his new Southern California lifestyle, and he plans to make a trip to Dodger Stadium after the season ends.
“I’ve only been here a week or two now, but so far it’s pretty nice,” Smith said. “The weather’s pretty nice. It’s starting to heat up a little bit, but it’s been nice so far.”
As a junior at the University of Louisville the 6-foot, 192-pound catcher hit .380/.476/.573 (57-for-150) with eight doubles, seven home runs and 43 RBI in 53 games. His improvement over his sophomore year, in which he hit .242 with two home runs and 15 RBI, raised his stock coming into the draft. He attributed finding consistency and his hard work as factors in his offensive improvement.
“I pretty much just became more consistent at the plate,” Smith said. “Not throwaway at-bats. I really worked with my coach, my teammates. Just a lot of hard work in the offseason that lead to it.”
Smith has a good reputation defensively. He was converted to catcher when he joined the Cardinals, and his defense was recognized when he was named to the 2016 American Baseball Coaches Association Gold Glove Team, the first Cardinals player to earn the defensive honor. He had the opportunity to learn from his senior teammates and coaches, making the transition smooth.
“It wasn’t as difficult as it would have been without them,” Smith said. “When I was a freshman I had three senior catchers in front of me, and I really learned from those guys. That’s my freshman year, and then my sophomore year I had to take it as my own. I still communicated with those guys and the coaches. They made it a lot easier.”
As far as pitch framing, he said, “It’s kind of one of those things that you grow up hearing about. You kind of try when you’re a little kid, I guess. But now we’re really getting into the metrics of it and how to do it. It’s kind of a learning experience.”
Smith has also played some second base and third base with the Quakes even though the Dodgers drafted him as a catcher. When asked if he saw himself continuing to play around the infield — similarly to Austin Barnes — or if he would focus on catching, his answer reflected his continued plan to be a versatile player around the infield.
“No, I’ve always enjoyed playing infield,” he said. “It’s what I mostly did in high school and while growing up. So I like to get out there and play infield a little bit. I’ll keep playing it as long as they’ll let me.”
Infielders like Nomar Garciaparra, his favorite player growing up, inspired him.
“Good shortstop for the Red Sox, which was my favorite team,” Smith said. “So yeah, I liked watching him play.”
Whether it’s behind the mask or at the plate, Smith is settling into his new So Cal routine as a professional.
“I think the biggest difference is just playing every day,” Smith said. “College you play three times on the weekend and once in the week, and then here it’s every day. So it’s kind of just physically getting used to it.”