By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
There was no tougher moment in Chris Smith’s career than the first time he got released.
Until the next time it happened, not long after.
Since then, he’s been released a couple more times, too.
But the 26-year-old right-hander has learned, grown, impressed on the mound, and after being let go by the New York Yankees organization for the second time this season – released out of spring training, re-signing a few days later and then being released again last Sunday – he immediately looked forward to the next opportunity.
“My first time I got released was in independent ball, so I feel like I’ve been able to handle it better here lately,” Smith said. “It’s unfortunate, obviously, but independent ball has made me tougher. Independent ball is not about development; it’s about winning. You have to be at the top of your game all year round because if not, you’re not going to have a job in independent ball.
“The thing it helped me most with is being in the moment and being able to focus on where I’m at. The Yankees definitely taught me that you can only control what you do. And I want to do well wherever I’m at, whether that’s High A, Double-A, Triple-A, the big leagues – it doesn’t matter. Independent ball really taught me that.”
Over 20 appearances and 36 1/3 innings between Double-A Trenton and Class-A Advanced Tampa this season, Smith posted a 2.72 ERA with six walks and 35 strikeouts, and held opponents to a .192 average. Over his last eight appearances – all in the Florida State League – he gave up just five hits over 14 1/3 shutout innings, walking one and fanning 16 batters.
Six days ago, after throwing a scoreless inning the night before, the Yankees told him they would no longer be needing his services.
“It was tough,” Smith said. “Especially when you feel like you’ve done everything you possibly could, and unfortunately you’re just not in the cards with the organization. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but at the same time it’s adversity. How you show you can overcome adversity really is an indicator of what kind of person you are.
“The Yankees gave me a chance to come back and I did come back and I felt like I did well enough to continue there, but I wasn’t in the cards for them and maybe this is a blessing in disguise, to get another chance with a different organization.”
Now, the native of Louisville, Ky., is with the Dunedin Blue Jays, Toronto’s FSL affiliate, playing for a team he’s faced on multiple occasions and joining a group that needed reinforcements after all of the club’s trade deadline deals.
“I had been keeping track of every team,” Smith said. “During the trade deadline I knew there was going to be a ton of roster moves. The Blue Jays did a great job of getting the big leaguers they got. They’re showing that they’re ready to compete at the major league level, especially with going out and getting [David] Price and [Troy] Tulowitzki.
“That shows a lot about the organization; they want to win. Of course I’ve been following everybody and I saw the Blue Jays let more people go in trades than any other organization, so I was hoping there might be an opportunity…and I’m just absolutely stoked to be a part of it.”
Smith’s journey to the Blue Jays has been a little bit unorthodox, to say the least. After finishing his post-secondary playing days at Kentucky Wesleyan College as an outfielder who would take over the mound in the late innings, the righty was ready to hang up his cleats and head into the real world.
He didn’t have to resort to that, however. Smith’s coach sent him to a two-day workout that doubled as a tryout for the independent Frontier League and there he landed with the Lake Erie Crushers. After throwing one inning, they released him.
The team he threw against, the Traverse City Beach Bums, had seen enough and picked Smith up to bolster their roster. The college graduate – and substitute teacher in the off-season – threw five frames over 20 games for his second professional team before they released him. Again, one of the teams he had thrown against grabbed him, this time the Washington Wild Things.
With Washington, Smith settled in and found great success over the course of a full season, but his job status hadn’t changed much and the interest in 6-foot-2, 205-pound righties with a low-90s fastball didn’t seem to be overwhelming. He still had gas left in the tank though, and wanted to keep playing.
Smith headed to the southern hemisphere to play club ball down under, hoping for a chance to land a spot in the Australian Baseball League, a professional circuit with players coming from a variety of backgrounds. He quickly impressed, throwing a no-hitter almost immediately after arriving in Brisbane, earning a spot with the Bandits and continuing his success there.
The converted shortstop and centre fielder signed with the Yankees out of the ABL and went straight to spring training, long before he was scheduled to report. He spent his first season sidelined with a mysterious and persistent forearm strain that was difficult to diagnose and treat, and was even more determined to get his affiliated career off of the right foot the following year.
Last season was his first official year on the field with the organization and he posted a 2.98 ERA over 32 appearances and 51 1/3 innings out of the bullpens in Charleston and Tampa, walking 14 and striking out 49 along the way. Now, the strike-thrower with his improved fastball up to the mid-90s and a nasty slider is starting over with Toronto.
“It’s been pretty wild,” Smith said. “It’s been a long journey. And I feel like I have the stuff to pitch in affiliated ball all the way up to the big leagues. At this point, it’s just about opportunity and being able to showcase what I can do. I’m just extremely thankful that the Blue Jays are giving me that shot.”
He’s looking forward to the fresh start, giving Dunedin an experienced arm out of the bullpen that can go multiple innings and has previously dominated in the league, and is excited for a new organization’s worth of fans to get to know him.
“I’m probably going to be throwing my slider a fair bit,” Smith said. “The main thing is that I want to be able to be known as a competitor every time I go out there. I want the ball every day. I want the ball every inning if I could. I’m focusing on doing well wherever I’m at, and hopefully if Blue Jays fans start following my journey they can appreciate the steps I’ve taken to get here and carry me through…
“I’m excited. It’s a new opportunity, and after being shockingly released to not knowing where I was going to play next, and then the Jays taking a chance with me, I’m just absolutely stoked.”