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Mets like what they see in Smith

Sidewinding right-hander could make way to Shea in '07
February 19, 2007
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Like the first bikini on the beach, the right-handed pitches of Joe Smith prompt longer looks, even double takes and genuine stares.

The Jugs Gun likes what it sees too.

It says he has touched 94 mph.

Smith's resume as a professional includes all of 32 2/3 innings, most of them in Class A, none in Triple-A. There is so little to his career at this point that he doesn't even warrant the classification of "rookie" because it connotes big-league status. And he doesn't have any.

But he is in Mets camp and conspicuous by his presence because of how he delivers a baseball.

Smith comes at you from third base, the hitters will say. His release point is at about 8:30 on the non-digital clock, lower than sidearm, higher than submarine or Jeff Innis. He is Chad Bradford-ish, the Mets hope. At 22, he is a Mets hope.

Drafted in June -- third round -- after a career at Wright State in Ohio, Smith was six weeks into his professional career when Duaner Sanchez's taxi accident threatened to undermine the Mets' summer. But before general manager Omar Minaya repaired the damage -- first with Roberto Hernandez and later with Guillermo Mota -- he gave Smith more than a passing thought.

"I have no problem with bringing college relievers to the Major Leagues," Minaya said Saturday.

Imagine that. Smith didn't. And even now that he has been invited to the Mets' spring camp, his rapid ascent is difficult for him to fathom. Clearly he is on the fast track. A contract, a debut, a promotion -- from the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones to Double-A Binghamton Mets without stops in Hagerstown and St. Lucie, and an invitation to camp -- all in eight months.

Smith also was one of the wannabes the Mets sent to rookie development weekend in Virginia last month; and those assignments aren't made haphazardly. And if his arm hadn't hit the wall late last summer, he would have been pitched in the Arizona Fall League, another indication of how highly regarded he is and how quickly the Mets think he will come.

"They have given me every opportunity I could ask for," he says.

He was surprised when a Wright State coach who knows Binghamton manager Juan Samuel told him of the big-league consideration he had been afforded in August.

"Really!" Smith said Sunday, recounting his reaction. "Some guys take seven or eight years. And it wasn't even two months."

Minaya had recalled his own decision in the summer of 2003. Then general manager of the Expos, he promoted Chad Cordero to the big leagues less than six weeks after he had been drafted out of Cal State-Fullerton. Cordero was 21. It worked.

Willie Randolph likes different looks in his bullpen. That's one of the reasons Aaron Heilman and his swing-and-miss changeup remain in the bullpen. The 2006 pen had Billy Wagner's left-handed heat, Duaner Sanchez's right-handed slider, Heilman's change and Bradford's "8:30" delivery.

So the manager took a longer look at Smith on Saturday. So did Minaya, pitching coach Rick Peterson and Al Jackson, the franchise's pitching sage. Randolph and Minaya used the word "intriguing" to describe Smith.

"That's a good thing ... I think," Smith said.

The different look and the velocity he generates -- he throws noticeably harder than Innis, Bradford or Terry Leach, the Mets other sub-9 o' clock pitchers -- make him intriguing. The trainers who measured the athletic acumen of the pitchers last week, said Smith tested high.

"There's a lot to like about him," Minaya said.

Smith is unlikely to earn a spot in what's expected to be a seven-man bullpen come Opening Day, but a call up during the season is a distinct possibility.

"After he gets more innings in, he could [come] up midseason and help us," Minaya said.

For now, the Mets will watch and see how he develops and how hitters respond to his combination of sidearm slider, sinking fastball and changeup.

New York-Penn League hitters were overwhelmed by it. Smith allowed 17 baserunners and struck out 28 on his first 20 innings as a professional.

"It was pretty competitive, like the Cape Cod League, but I just looked at it like they were just college guys with wooden bats," Smith says.

By the first week of August -- after Sanchez went down, he was in the Eastern League where the wooden bats make more contact.

"My first inning, I got out with no runs. But they hit me hard," he says.

Still, he hadn't allowed a run when his Double-A innings totaled 9 1/3. But fatigue attacked. His final ERA for 12 1/3 innings with Binghamton was 5.68. His strikeouts were down. The Fall League was out.

Not surprisingly, Smith wasn't always a sidewinder. He threw conventionally in high school -- before he underwent surgery for a torn labrum as a senior -- and at Wright State when he was cut from the team as a freshman. But when he was a sophomore, one of coaches wanted a pitcher with a sidearm delivery.

He tried it, prospered, wanted to abandon it, returned to it and put himself in position to pitch in the big leagues.

"It's been a good pitch for me," he says. "My name is pretty plain. My nickname [Smitty] is pretty plain. I had to have something unique."

Marty Noble is a reporter for