Minor League baseball players learn an unwritten, unspoken element of player development protocol shortly after they sign their first contracts. They recognize the fact that there are two categories of prospects on the field at all times.
There are players who are viewed by the organization as having definite Major League potential, based on either the organization's substantial investment in the player with a high draft pick or signing bonus, or the organization's projection that the player's skills will translate to the big league level. Those players are moved upward through the farm system at a steady pace, seemingly without regard to statistics or overall performance.
The second group of players includes everyone else. They enter professional baseball without particular expectations and must earn each advance through their performance on the field. Worse yet for many of the players in this group, in terms of status, a strong performance at one level is not rolled over to the next. Once they do earn a promotion to a higher level, they start from ground zero again, having to keep proving themselves all over again in each new league as they climb the organizational ladder, as if the eyes of the baseball world are waiting for them to "top out" or fail against the improved competition.
Can a player make the Major Leagues without ever having been viewed as a "prospect" at all, by simply playing so well at each level that the organization keeps moving him up until he eventually reaches the big leagues? Yes, it can happen, and did happen with outfielder Stephen Smitherman.
Smitherman was selected by the Reds in the 23rd round of the 2000 draft out of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, the 693rd player selected that year. He opened his professional career with the Billings Mustangs and belted seven home runs in his first month of action. He finished the year at .316 and connected on 15 homers in 70 games to earn a promotion the next season to the Dragons.
"When he came here, he really wasn't a prospect," remembers Marc Katz, who covered the Dragons for the Dayton Daily News. "But as the season wore on, you kept looking at him and thinking that this guy is doing pretty well. Only twice all year did he go more than two straight games without a hit. I mean, he got big hits all the time, and he made himself into a prospect."
In 2001 in Dayton, Smitherman was the cleanup hitter in a Dragons lineup that also included Wily Mo Pena, and Randy Ruiz, two power hitters who would play in the Major Leagues, and Samone Peters, who hit 28 homers that year. Smitherman hit .280 with 20 home runs and 73 runs batted in. To put some perspective to those numbers, only three other players in Dragons history have ever hit .280 or higher with at least 20 homers (Austin Kearns, Donald Lutz, and David Vidal).
His season in Dayton earned Smitherman another promotion, to Stockton in the California League in 2002. Another year brought more of the same, a .313 batting average, 19 home runs, and 99 runs batted in with Stockton.
On to Double-A in 2003 with Chattanooga, where he would have to prove himself all over again. By the end of June, 2003, Smitherman was batting .318 and had already connected on 16 home runs. He had been selected to play in the Southern League All-Star Game and was beginning to generate some attention as a prospect. To date, Smitherman had never appeared in any of the annual rankings of the Baseball America top 10 prospects for the Reds, but his performance was speaking for itself. He was selected to play in the 2003 All-Star Futures Game, an annual event made up of baseball's top prospects.
Reds Director of Player Development Tim Naehring saw Smitherman's progress. "He's showed at every level the rare ability to drive the ball," said Naehring in the Chattanoogan.com.
On July 1, Smitherman was promoted all the way to the Major Leagues by the Reds for a one-game opportunity. He lined out to center field as a pinch hitter and was sent to Triple-A Louisville. Near the end of August, he was called back to Cincinnati, and in his very first at-bat on August 25, just the second plate appearance of his big league career, he slammed a two-run, pinch hit home run against Milwaukee.
Smitherman played in 19 more games with the Reds that season, batting just .159. Following that 2003 season, Smitherman was named Reds Minor League Player of the Year for his great production at Chattanooga. For the first time, he appeared on the Baseball America Reds top 10 prospect list, ranked at # 7.
But the 2003 season turned out to be Smitherman's only season in the Major Leagues. He spent two more years in the Reds farm system and was released at the end of spring training in 2006. He signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres and spent the year with Double-A Mobile, earning team Most Valuable Player honors. The 2006 season was Smitherman's last in professional baseball. He retired at the age of 27.
In seven years in the Minor Leagues, Smitherman hit 114 home runs, plus one more in the Majors. With Smitherman hitting cleanup, the 2001 Dragons team belted 144 home runs, 24 more than any other Dragons team in franchise history. Smitherman was one of four players on that team to hit at least 20 home runs. Only one other Dragons team has ever had two players belt 20 (2011).
Smitherman stands as one of 57 Dragons players to play in the Major Leagues.
Click Here for Smitherman's Major League statistics
Click Here for Smitherman's Minor League statistics
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.