August 2, 2006

Who Is ... Mike Smith

Was it really only a week ago that the Twins were sweeping the White Sox, in Chicago, to pull within a half-game of the Wild Card lead?

Since then they've lost back-to-back series, and that's actually not even the bad news. Johan Santana hasn't looked like himself, Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke are trying to pitch through injuries, and Scott Baker and Boof Bonser have been sent back to Triple-A after giving up a combined 15 runs in 7.1 innings against the Rangers.

Similar to the outfield's dire situation when Jason Kubel's knees started acting up and Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart, and Lew Ford each hit the disabled list within 48 hours last month, the starting rotation is in a sudden state of flux. With Baker and Bonser heading to Rochester, Mike Smith was brought up to be on call tonight if Radke can't go or Sunday if Liriano's forearm remains a problem.

If you've never heard of Smith, you're not alone. Drafted by the Blue Jays in the fifth round way back in 2000, Smith moved quickly through Toronto's minor-league system and made it to the big leagues in 2002. He struggled, going 0-3 with a 6.62 ERA in 35.1 innings, and then spent the next two seasons going 12-15 with a 5.13 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse.

Smith left the Toronto organization as a six-year minor-league free agent following the 2004 season, signing on with Philadelphia's Double-A team. He went 5-14 with a 4.48 ERA in 28 starts there and was also knocked around in one start at Triple-A. Let go by the Phillies during the offseason, Smith signed with the Twins to serve as run-of-the-mill Triple-A roster filler.

The Twins surely didn't expect much from Smith beyond eating innings at Rochester. At 28 years old, he came into this season with a 17-29 record and 4.91 ERA in 414.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A over the past three years. However, Smith went 9-4 with a 3.52 ERA at Rochester and now he's back in the big leagues.

Unfortunately, a deeper look at Smith's Triple-A numbers reveals a pitcher getting by on smoke and mirrors:

 G     GS      ERA        IP     SO     BB     HR     OAVG
23 19 3.54 125.1 94 43 10 .253

Smith's ERA looks nice, but he managed only 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings while flashing mediocre control, served up 10 homers in 125.1 frames, and allowed opponents to hit .253 against him. When combined with his previous track record, those numbers suggest Smith will be overmatched against big-league hitters and might even struggle against the Royals.

The good news is that if Radke's shoulder doesn't get any worse and Liriano is able to avoid a trip to the disabled list, Smith will likely only be needed for at most two starts. He's essentially being used as a backup plan for the remainder of the week, which is interesting given that the Twins also have Matt Garza waiting in the wings at Triple-A.

Assuming the Twins don't expect Radke or Liriano to miss significant time, it's likely that Terry Ryan would rather use a minor-league veteran for a spot start or two. After all, when the Twins do call Garza up, they probably want it to be for good. It's also possible that Ryan doesn't believe Garza is quite ready for primetime, which is something he's indicated in various interviews over the past few days.

In either case, don't expect Smith to remain with the team for more than a week unless Liriano or Radke heads to the DL, in which case the Twins' playoff chances are pretty much toast anyway. In other words, while Mike Smith may be a great guy who persevered through several tough seasons to get another chance in the majors, the longer he's around the worse the Twins' chances become.

But hey, welcome to Minnesota (or at least Kansas City), Mike!

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