Smith poised for comeback in 2010
Rockies lefty shows progress at medical minicamp
DENVER -- Left-handed pitcher Greg Smith lived 2009 as the Rockies' forgotten man in the deal that sent outfield star Matt Holliday to the Athletics.Huston Street became the Rockies' closer. Carlos Gonzalez provided a lift to the Rockies' outfield late in the season. As for Smith, who threw 190 1/3 innings for the Athletics as a rookie in 2008, "I went through the year and every time I looked up, I saw those two letters -- 'DL' -- beside my name. It was very tough." Two bouts with illness during Spring Training cost Smith preparation time, and in overworking to return led to shoulder inflammation, then back spasms. His 2009 amounted to 49 1/3 innings in the Minors. But that's beginning to change. On Wednesday, Smith and several other Rockies Major and Minor Leaguers who are or have been dealing with injuries began a medical minicamp at Coors Field. But Smith, who is already into his normal offseason program, could be throwing bullpen sessions by the end of the 10-day session and should be ready when Spring Training opens next month in Tucson, Ariz. "I almost forgot how it feels to be healthy," Smith said. "Every day last year, I'd go to the field and wonder, 'How am I going to feel today? What's going to hurt today? What's going to flare up next?' I was always fighting something. But now I feel good." Smith, 26, never had a problem with availability before last season. The D-backs' sixth-round pick out of LSU in the 2005 Draft, Smith was regarded highly enough that the Athletics grabbed him when they dealt Dan Haren to Arizona before the 2008 season. With the A's, Smith made 32 starts and went 7-16 with a 4.16 ERA. The record had more to do with a lack of run support -- 2.88 per nine innings, the lowest for a Major League pitcher over the past 11 seasons. After the '08 campaign, Smith underwent surgery to remove "loose bodies" from his throwing elbow, but the Rockies traded for him with confidence he would be healthy enough to compete for a spot in the rotation. But a stomach bug and shoulder inflammation derailed those hopes. "It felt like a waste," Smith said. "I sat down with [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett one day and told him how frustrating it was. It was killing me. In the end, it turned out to be invaluable information." But it's not always easy for Smith to chalk up 2009 as one big lesson. "I don't know if I've let go of that disappointed feeling," Smith said. "I guess I have to. But before last year, I've prided myself on being able to go out there every fifth day. I guess it's a good thing that last year is fresh in my memory because I don't want it to repeat itself. I don't like that feeling where I have to sit on the bench and watch the game. "But when I started my offseason workouts, I began to say, 'OK, 2009 is behind me. It's on to 2010.'" The medical minicamp is a good way for Smith to tear 2009 off his calendar. "Last year was very tough for him, but we're optimistic," said Rockies player development director Marc Gustafson, who watched Smith go through rehab but not finish his comeback last season. "Right now, he probably has more strength than he normally would at this time." A year later than he wanted, Smith must show where he fits in the Rockies' pitching plan. Right-hander Jason Marquis has signed with the Nationals after winning 16 games last season, but the other four starters -- Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel -- return. Lefty Jeff Francis, who won 17 games in 2007 but pitched through pain in 2008 and missed last season because of shoulder surgery, is expected back healthy. But Smith will be trying to break into the rotation, or at least earn a spot in relief. Rockies manager Jim Tracy is intrigued by Smith's potential. "We're going to find out just as much about him probably in Spring Training as we are Jeff Francis," Tracy said. "You can't ignore the fact that he had an injury-plagued 2009, but he pitched 190-plus innings for an American League club back in 2008 and did a very, very nice job." Wherever Smith fits, he'll face a major question. With the Athletics, opponents hit into .56 ground-ball outs for every fly-ball out. This has stat analysts giving Smith a description that sounds like a reality show: Extreme Fly-ball Pitcher.
Can Greg Smith find happiness letting hitters lift the ball at Coors Field? Couple his fly-ball tendencies with more than four walks per nine innings and a low strikeout rate, and there is cause for concern.However, when the Rockies scouted Smith, they noted that when his location was correct, the fly balls were not solid drives to the outfield but often weak popups that are no threat to leave any park, even one at mile-high altitude. But even before the trade, Smith was working on forcing more grounders. "Toward the end of 2008, I knew what the stats were and I started working with Curt Young, my pitching coach in Oakland, working on ways to get more sink and throwing downhill more," Smith said. "It'll be nice to get more ground balls. "So, I'm working on it. I'm a fly-ball pitcher who is trying to adapt. I'm going to try to get more ground balls, but fly-ball outs are still outs."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.