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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Royals' Smith making quick impression

BY BOB DUTTON
Kansas City Star

SURPRISE, Ariz. —It's different this time around for left-handed pitcher Will Smith. A year ago, in camp with the Los Angeles Angels, he often found himself in awe of his surroundings.

Not surprising, really.

The Angels were a veteran club coming off a fifth division title in six years, while Smith had spent the previous season in Low A-ball at Cedar Rapids.

"Those were guys you see on TV all of the time or you have on your video games," he said. "And, now, they're just walking around and having conversations with you."

Fast forward to now.

Smith, 21, is part of a collection of young arms seeking to make an impression with the Royals after arriving last July with pitcher Sean O'Sullivan in the trade that sent third baseman Alberto Callaspo to the Angels.

Here, Smith fits right in.

The youthful clubhouse is jammed with players his own age, many of whom played last season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, which won the Texas League title in part because Smith delivered two strong postseason starts following his emergency promotion from Class A Wilmington.

"He's a big, strong kid with composure," Northwest Arkansas manager Brian Poldberg said. "There's just something about him. He's got some intangibility. He showed me an ability to make quality pitches even when it was a hitter's count.

"He did everything you could ask of a kid who you hadn't even seen but are throwing him into a playoff situation. Here you go; fourth game against Springfield, and we've got to win."

And now?

Smith has been, quite simply, the best pitcher in camp, retiring all nine hitters over three innings in two relief appearances. His next test figures to be sterner: A starting assignment today when the Royals send a split squad to Phoenix to play Oakland.

"What I'm seeing from Will Smith is confidence and conviction," pitching coach Bob McClure said. "He doesn't mess around out there."

McClure means that literally. Smith works at a tempo reminiscent of White Sox ace Mark Buehrle, who is often involved each year in some of baseball's quickest games.

"I've always been a fast-worker kind of guy," said Smith, who carries 235 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame. "I like to get it and throw it. There's no lolly-gagging around. I hate it when guys call time. That gets me. I want the ball, and I want to do my job."

Smith remains a long shot to break camp with the club especially since the Royals show no inclination to view him, at this point, as a bullpen possibility. That points to an almost-certain trip back to the minors to accumulate innings and build skills.

"He's a 21-year-old 35-year-old," manager Ned Yost said. "He's very calm. I love his demeanor on the mound. I love the way he goes about his business. He never changes expression. He just gets the ball and comes right at you.

"He's way (up there) on my radar, but he's a starter. He's not a guy we'd look at (in a bullpen role)."

Smith scuffled last season prior to the trade — perhaps because the Angels, in an effort to accelerate his development, quickly promoted him from Class A Rancho Cucamonga to Triple-A Salt Lake.

Ineffectiveness eventually pushed him back to Double-A Arkansas. He was a combined 5-8 with a 5.53 ERA in 19 starts when summoned by the Angels' minor-league farm director.

"At first, I thought I was in trouble," Smith recalled. "It was just a normal day for me in BP, and he came up, got me and asked me, 'Do you have any other personal belongings here other than your truck and clothes?'

"I said, 'No, sir.' He said, 'You've just been traded to the Kansas City Royals. Let's go upstairs and do some paperwork.' "

The Royals took a go-slow approach by sending Smith to Wilmington, where he quickly regained form by going 4-1 with a 2.80 ERA in eight starts.

When Northwest Arkansas needed a pitcher in the playoffs, the Royals chose Smith over former first-round pick Aaron Crow. Smith responded with a solid effort in a must-win game at Springfield.

He followed that with 6 2/3 innings in the 2-0 title-clinching victory over Midland. That pretty much cemented an invitation to big-league camp, and he is determined to use the time, however long it lasts, as a learning experience.

"When you're around the older guys," Smith said, "you try to pick their brains as much as you can. They do a good job of putting us in groups with older guys. That gives us a chance to pick their brains.

"Bruce Chen is in my (work) group. You get something from him every day."

The future for Smith keeps looking brighter.

"When the trade happened," he said, "I didn't know what to say. I was shocked. I called my agent, and he told me it was a good thing that this happened. My high school coach — I always call him for advice — told me it was a good thing.

"Once I got that through my head, I was excited."

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