Chris Smith’s welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment happened when he gave up a grand slam in 2008 to the second batter he ever faced. Once that was behind him, it became somewhat of a calming influence.
Jon Link is approaching his time with the Wingnuts similarly — something to get out of the way before he can be a productive pitcher in the upper levels of affiliated baseball again.
The calming influence will be a transition to starting that could make Smith and Link, both former major-league relievers, more marketable to MLB organizations. They’ll occupy the two spots in the rotation for the Wingnuts, and Link will make his 10th career start Thursday night as Wichita opens the season against Kansas City T-Bones at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Both right-handed pitchers are balancing a desire to return to the big leagues with their role as mentor to Wingnuts pitchers who don’t have that on their resumes. Smith and Link will be joined in those efforts by another ex-MLB pitcher, Mike Burns, Wichita’s first-year bullpen coach.
"It’s really whatever it takes to get back to that level," Link said. "I think I’ve showed everybody that I’m pretty good out of the bullpen and can handle the back-end of ballgames. Anything to make myself more valuable to an organization, I’m willing to try. If starting is the thing I need to try, then I’m going to do it."
In 2011, one year after Link made his major-league debut by pitching in nine games for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team sent him back to Triple-A to groom him as a starter. Link was quoted at the time as saying he didn’t have the patience to start, and the Dodgers must have picked up on those feelings, because he made all of one start for Albuquerque that season.
Link’s complaint, besides his dislike for waiting four days between appearances, was that the Dodgers didn’t give him enough time to prepare to start. Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper offered Link that time, and Link spent the offseason building stamina while throwing to new Wichita catcher Cole Armstrong, Link’s teammate in the Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins organizations.
"I spent a full season going up-and-down from the big leagues to Triple-A as a bullpen guy," Link said. "Then, all of a sudden they said ‘We want you to start in the (Arizona) Fall League. They don’t send a whole lot of slouches to the fall league. After a full season pitching in the back end, and all of a sudden they say, ’Hey, we want you to start,’ that’s kind of not the way I would have gone about it with a guy."
The 29-year-old Link never built on his nine appearances with the Dodgers and spent the last two seasons in Triple-A. Smith had more time to make an impression, pitching for two big-league teams over three seasons, and made a strong one with Milwaukee in 2009 after an inauspicious debut with the Red Sox a year earlier.
Smith, 32, entered his first game in relief of Daisuke Matsuzaka with the bases loaded in the second inning against St. Louis. Smith struck out the first batter he faced, Rick Ankiel, but then surrendered a grand slam to Troy Glaus. He pitched to 12 more batters in that game without allowing another run and earned his first — and only — MLB win three days later.
"The first three pitches you strike the guy out, then you get Troy Glaus up there and he gets a grand slam and you go, ’Oh, that happened fast,’ ” Smith said. "I still had to go 3 2/3 innings after that, so you move on. You wipe the slate clean and move on and try to make sure that doesn’t happen too many times."
Smith signed with the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2009 season and pitched in 35 games that year as part of a bullpen that included then-all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. Smith had a 4.11 ERA but the impression he believed he made on the Brewers seemingly wasn’t shared by Milwaukee’s decision-makers.
Smith pitched in three major-league games in 2010 and hasn’t been back. The circuitous route of a minor-league baseball player has brought Smith and Link to Wichita, to an organization that has succeeded in transitioning relief pitchers into starters and sending them back to affiliated ball. Will Savage resurrected his career with the Wingnuts in 2009 and reached Triple-A with the Dodgers last year.
"This offseason I really had the opportunity to do it the right way," Link said of becoming a starter. "Build my pitch count and really learn how to do it with a guy who knows a ton about pitching and a ton about me, in Cole. That’s really helped."