* Blue Jays OF Dwight Smith, Jr., left, the organization’s Webster award winner at class-A Dunedin, is spending this month in the Arizona Fall League learning a new position from Toronto infielder instructor Mike Mordecai with the Mesa Solar Sox. (Photos: Alexis Brudnicki).
By Alexis Brudnicki
MESA, Ariz. – Throughout his three years of in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Dwight Smith Jr. has had to make a number of adjustments.
The latest adaptation to his game is happening during his time in the Arizona Fall League currently, where the former first-round pick has started to transition from playing the outfield full-time to taking balls at second base.
“I’ve gotten a lot better,” Smith said. “My hands have gotten a lot softer, I’ve been using my legs more, and I feel like it has gotten a lot easier. Those ground balls that are hit hard at me don’t seem as hard anymore …
“The toughest part is probably being ready more often, on every single pitch, because you never know when the ball is going to be hit to you in the infield, it’s so much more fast-paced than the outfield.”
With just over two weeks so far in the prospect-laden circuit, Smith has spent a significant amount of time every day working at the new position, learning mostly from Mike Mordecai,manager of the Mesa Solar Sox and also the Blue Jays minor league infield coordinator, though he hasn’t played second base in a game as of yet.
“I still enjoy the outfield but I like the infield,” Smith said. “Probably once I get into a game or two I’ll be able to see which one I like better.”
If and when the 21-year-old Georgia native does get to utilize his newfound skillset off the practice field, his time at second will only provide a small sample of what the future might hold. Smith is a member of the taxi squad in the AFL, only playing on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“It’s definitely hard but you still get to work,” he said. “It’s better than sitting at home and just lifting weights all the time. You get to be on the field for an extra month and then come back in February pretty much almost fresh. It’s definitely hard coming off the bench, playing in a game and seeing [pitches at] 96, that’s tough but it’s all fun.”
Smith is especially enjoying his time in the prestigious off-season league playing with more high-calibre players than he’d imagined.
“Everybody here is pretty good,” he said. “Everybody is good at something and it’s pretty amazing. It was really eye-opening to me that there were this many talented guys playing. I saw them and I thought, wow…
“It feels good to be amongst all these top guys from everybody’s team. You get to know where everybody else is at, from all the other teams. It’s pretty unique and pretty cool and I’m honoured to be here.”
Smith was invited to Arizona after an award-winning season with the Dunedin Blue Jays. Working with hitting coach Stubby Clapp and gleaning knowledge from his former big-league father, he won the R. Howard Webster honour for being the team’s top player with a .284/.363/.453 slash line to go with 12 home runs, eight triples, 28 doubles, 83 runs, 60 RBIs and 15 stolen bases.
“Stubby is awesome,” Smith said. “He always has your back and he always wants to work, so that’s a big plus. He’s a big player-coach type of guy so I really like the chemistry I had with Stubby this year.”
Getting a shot at the fall league was near the top of Smith’s to-do list heading into this winter and he was excited to get a chance to continue playing.
“I thought about it,” Smith said of coming to the AFL. “I always wanted to play with the top competition and see where I’m at [in comparison] so it was one of my goals for this off-season…I feel great about the season [in Dunedin].
“My dad always told me you get the results you put in, in the off-season, and so far that’s been working for me … I weightlift [in the winter], I wake up in the morning and run, and I have a speed coach.”
Smith’s father, Dwight Smith, has helped his son over the course of his young career, with plenty of wisdom to impart from parts of eight seasons in the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, California Angels and Baltimore Orioles, and pieces of 10 seasons in the minors.
“What my dad has taught me has helped the most,” Smith said. “Throughout my young years, like when I was still in high school and stuff, he taught me a lot. Basically everything he’s told me has happened pretty much, and I’ve gone through it in pro ball.”
The young outfielder knows he has a unique opportunity in being able to turn to his father about anything that might come up, and he is incredibly appreciative.
“It’s awesome,” Smith said. “He helps me at everything. It’s a big advantage. He knows. He’s been through it so he knows exactly what I’m going through when I struggle or after I have a good game or whatnot, so it’s always great.”
Before moving to second base, the biggest area of learning for Smith so far has been within his mental game and figuring out how to handle everything off the field while maintaining his performance on it.
“It definitely has been a mental adjustment,” he said. “Mental game is the main part I had to get when I signed in pro ball. It really is a grind playing every day. Different things come up like family and whatnot, girlfriend or whatever, so the mental part is a big part of this game. That’s what I’ve learned over the past three years.”
He’s found ways to deal with it.
“I feel like I take care of that stuff right before I get to the field,” Smith said. “That’s the big thing Stubby said, all the off-field things you handle before you come into the parking lot. Once you step into that building, it’s time to work.”
Smith has found plenty of success in his work and knows what he still needs to continue to focus on.
“My knowledge and my hitting are my strengths, hitting is probably my biggest,” Smith said. “I work on everything pretty much…Working on second now, they asked if I could play second and I said, ‘Sure, I can play anything,’ except for catcher or pitcher, I probably wouldn’t want to play those, but anything else I’m open for it. So I said, ‘Yeah I’ll play.’”
After spending the full season in Dunedin with moments of thinking that he might be promoted to Double-A New Hampshire, Smith is looking forward to getting his shot at the Fisher Cats roster next year, and more.
“All I can really control is what I do on the field,” he said. “Just practice and get better and then hopefully when they call my name the opportunity comes and I’ll be ready for it … sure I thought [I would be in New Hampshire at some point] but things happen and I understand that. I was cool with it. I was just happy playing every day, happy to be out there and play the game I love, to have that opportunity.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis