If Cade Smith was nervous, you couldn’t tell.
The Abbotsford kid and Chilliwack Cougars baseball alum threw a bullpen session Thursday afternoon at ‘The Yard.’
Between pitches the teenager’s face was a blank slate.
As he delivered fastballs and breaking pitches into the big mitt of his catcher, Smith grimaced from the exertion of firing a projectile between 86 and 90 miles per hour.
The pop of ball into mitt verified the velocity.
Bullpen sessions are something Smith has done hundreds of times before, as second nature to him as walking and breathing.
“It’s just me getting my work in, which is something I like to do,” he said. “It was good.”
But this one was different and there was a reason to be nervous. That reason’s name was Walt Burrows.
As Smith powered pitches from a wooden mound, a grey haired man in a black jacket shot video and watched intently. Moving over to a screen set up behind the catcher, he took out a radar gun and pointed it at the pitcher. Burrows is a scout for the Minnesota Twins, and five days before the Major League Baseball draft he wanted to get one last look at the six-foot-five flamethrower.
“When you’re pitching in a game there’s eyeballs on you, so it’s just part of the job,” Smith said. “You’ve got to learn to perform under pressure.
“And this wasn’t really a make-or-break deal, more of a last-minute reminder for Walt.”
While Smith downplayed it as no big deal, the 15 minute session represented one last chance to solidify his status as a probable second-day pick.
MLB teams draft rounds three through 10 on Tuesday, with Burrows’ Twins holding the first pick in each round. Hearing his name called by Minnesota or any other team sets up a potentially life-changing scenario.
MLB assigns slot value to each of the draft positions. It’s the league’s attempt to assign some financial sanity to the process, though teams rarely stick to those numbers.
The Philadelphia Phillies drafted shortstop Cole Stobbe with the first pick of round three in 2016 and lured him into their system with a whopping $1,100,000 signing bonus. The slot value was $813,500. The St. Louis Cardinals made third baseman Danny Hudzina the last pick of round 10 and wrote the poor guy a check for $3,000, a bargain with that slot valued at $156,600.
With a scholarship to the University of Hawaii in his back pocket, Smith has the leverage to get a lot more than Hudzina did, but he said it will be baseball considerations, not money considerations, that hold the most weight.
“What it comes down to is if I’m mentally ready to begin my journey as a professional ball player,” the 18 year old said. “Am I ready to live on my own and be away from home for the first time.
“How am I going to handle that? How am I going to become my own support network? I still have a lot of thinking to do.”
Smith is an enticing prospect. Scouts like projectability in a prospect.
If Smith is six-foot-five with a frame that can add muscle, a scout can surmise that his radar gun readings will jump up as he gets stronger.
“Usually I’m around 86-90 miles per hour, and I’ve had two outings where I’ve touched 92,” he said. “I’m pretty skinny for my height, so as I get older and add weight and strength hopefully my velocity goes up.”
Smith also has an intriguing arsenal of pitches.
“I have four seam and two seam fastballs and I also have a curve and changeup,” he said. “I’ve had people tell me I have late life on my fastball and it kind of jumps on hitters a bit.
“Especially my two seam, I have a little movement inside to right-handed hitters, which is a good thing.”
When he’s 22 or 23 years old, Smith could be the type of pitcher who hits 92-95 consistently on the radar gun and brings four average to above-average (plus) offerings. But what impresses Burrows most though is Smith’s work ethic. He had his notebook in hand last October when Smith took to the mound in a Fall Instructional League outing in Florida. Every pitcher has bad days. The Canadian National Junior Team hurler faced live hitters for one of the first times in the young season and he got roughed up.
But it’s what he did after coming out of the game that caught the scout’s eye.
“He didn’t have a particularly good game, but instead of feeling sorry for himself he got up and ran ‘poles’ behind the fence,” Burrows recalled. “He didn’t give up on his training regimen because of a poor outing, and most kids aren’t like that.”
Smith’s done his best to stay even-keel through this process. He plans to watch the draft from home as it streams live on MLB.com and has imagined what it will be like to see his name come up.
“This process has been stressful, but it’s a good kind of stress,” he said. “I have two good options (college or minor pro) and a lot to think about, but it’s exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It’s a long road I’ll face but it’s something I love to do. Ultimately if I want to play in the big leagues I have to work my way from the bottom up and keep grinding.”