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Dodgers 2017 top prospects: No. 14, Will Smith

2016 draftee ended first pro season with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga

Will Smith caught 39 games in 2016, and also played 8 games at third base and 6 games at second base.
Photo credit: Tomo San | LA Dodgers

The most surprising name in the rankings this year may be Will Smith, and not because he was not a Dodgers prospect before the start of the 2016 season, but that he wasn’t even on draft radars before his junior season at Louisville. Smith went from a light-hitting catcher as a sophomore to leading Louisville in hitting last season while slugging seven home runs. Smith was such a late riser by draft day that he did not rank in my initial Top 200 draft list, and the Dodgers’ selection of Smith in the first round (pick No. 32) seemed a surprise even to draft experts.

If you take Smith’s 2016 season at Louisville to be the representation of his pro potential, then Smith could be a steal even at the back of the first round. Smith struck out just 14 times in 55 games, and was an on base force with a .480 percentage buoyed by 17 hit by pitches. Smith also showed a promising power-speed game, with seven home runs and nine steals in 10 attempts.

The problem with such a rosy projection is that you cannot ignore Smith’s production prior to his junior year. Smith slashed just .242/.333/.331 as a sophomore and then followed it up with .259/.333/.259 line in 10 games with Brewster in the Cape Cod League. Upon being drafted, Smith posted a combined slash line of .246/.355/.329 across three levels, and struck out in 20% of his plate appearances. So how can the athleticism/tools profile help distinguish what type of performer Smith can be for Los Angeles?

Luckily, Smith’s primary carry tool is not his bat, but his defense. Smith is considered a plus defensive catcher with elite athleticism for the position and a reputation as an excellent pitch framer. Smith establishes a low crouch and wastes little motion framing, giving umpires a clear look at the plate. He’s more quick release than arm strength, but still posted a combined caught stealing rate of 41%. There’s little question that Smith will be a capable defensive catcher at the big league level.

Additionally, Smith’s athleticism gives him extra utility in the field, and a chance for a dynamic offensive profile for a catcher. The Dodgers played Smith at both second and third base, and he might even have the speed to handle center field if need be. Smith could be a stolen base threat, though he hasn’t been utilized as such at either Louisville or pro ball. Smith’s 9-for-10 success rate in college suggests he could eventually be a 15- to 20-stolen-base guy, provided he doesn’t slow down with additional bulk.

That may not be likely, because Smith’s frame doesn’t suggest he can carry much more. He’s a lean athlete at a listed 6’0 192 lbs., but doesn’t look out of place physically as a catcher. He has some room to increase his upper body bulk, but he shouldn’t detract from his quickness or movement skills. Smith may need just a little bit of early season build up to last through a grinding season, but given the Dodgers’ depth of catchers and Smith’s utility, he can be spared the constant rigors of catching.

Smith’s eventual offensive upside likely rests between his Louisville numbers and his pro debut. He was pushed quickly to Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he struck out almost 27% of the time, but Smith’s hit tool suggests future improvement in his contact rate. Smith has a quiet set up and a quick trigger. Smith’s bat speed is above average and he employs a level swing plane that currently leads to too many grounders, but isn’t far off from matching plane more consistently with the pitch.

I don’t envision a great deal of additional power coming from Smith, where he profiles as fringe-average for now, but could be doubles heavy as he matures. He is not overly pull conscious and looks to utilize the whole field presently, but like Austin Barnes, he has enough bat speed and strength to learn to eventually pull his pitch for power.

While I’ve seen some unfair comparisons to Buster Posey, I see Smith’s best case scenario being that of Jason Kendall, who carved out a lengthy big league career and in his prime was a dynamic offensive threat at the top of the Pittsburgh order. I’d love to see the Dodgers turn Smith loose on the basepaths this season to see whether that can become a consistent component to his offensive game. Smith will likely return to Rancho Cucamonga, where fresh legs and a year’s worth of experience could make him one of the team’s top overall offensive performers.

The only thing holding Smith back from ranking higher next year is track record. From a ranking standpoint, he’s probably already close to his floor, where his defense should be enough to carry him to the major leagues. While the Dodgers’ catching situation is crowded at the upper levels, Smith’s athleticism and upside will clear the log jam if his bat follows through with its contact potential.

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