Sights and sounds of spring training captured over a few days and published Feb. 21 Robin Buckson, The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — Cruel game, baseball. Such a cruel game.
Chris Smith, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, went undrafted out of Kentucky Wesleyan and since 2010 has been fighting his way up through independent leagues, the Australian Professional League, winter leagues in Puerto Rico and the Dominican and then finally through the Yankees' system.
Last season he finally got his first taste of the big leagues, a four-game stint with the Blue Jays. Which led to the Tigers signing him as a minor-league free agent with an invitation to big-league camp.
“He was really excited about being here,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He thought this was a good opportunity for him. It’s just brutal.”
On the last pitch Smith threw in an abbreviated live batting practice session Wednesday, his first time facing hitters, he felt a searing pain in his right arm. He found out Thursday that he ruptured the UCL ligament in his right elbow and will likely require Tommy John surgery.
“Just super unfortunate,” Smith said. “You put in all the time and the work in the offseason and you come in ready to compete for a position and then this happens.”
He’s 30 years old. It took him nine years playing all over the globe to get to this point. Now it’s likely he will have to restart the whole process in 18 months.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “I wish I had an answer to help other people. Wish I could say, ‘Hey, this is what you can do to prevent it.’ But this is just pretty unfortunate.”
Unfortunate because Smith did everything right. He was in great shape. He’d been working out at the University of Tampa. He stayed true to his throwing regimen, his shoulder and arm programs. He didn’t come in and try to overthrow or do anything to put himself in harm’s way.
But all it takes is one throw.
“I felt awesome coming in,” he said. “I was really looking forward to coming in and competing. That’s something I’ve always had in me is a competitive nature. When you can’t compete at the level you want to, you have to look at options and re-evaluate things.
“Unfortunately, the re-evaluation is heading toward where I don’t really want it to head.”
Smith said he was still considering his options and may even get a second opinion or two on the elbow. But he knows where this is headed – his first, and as he said, his last Tommy John surgery.
“It was really tough talking to Gardy and letting him know,” Smith said. “I tried to express to those guys how excited I was to be here. I had heard good things about the opportunities they give guys and nothing but good things about this staff.
“It had been an easy transition here. It’d really been awesome to this point. So to get this news today, it’s just super unfortunate. But I have to hit it head-on and try to move forward.”
A cruel game, part 2
Veteran infielder Gordon Beckham signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers this offseason because he knew the second base job was open and he was assured he’d get a fair shot to win it. He was also told the Tigers were still sifting through the free-agent market and might add another infielder.
On Wednesday came the news the Tigers had reached an agreement with second baseman Josh Harrison, one-year, $2 million deal.
“It’s not ideal for me,” Beckham said. “But all I can do is go out and be a pro, show up every day and do the best I can and see what happens. There’s still a long way to go.”
Beckham, like Harrison and Niko Goodrum, can play multiple positions, including the corner outfield spots. He had been taking ground balls and doing drills at third, shortstop and second base before Harrison agreed to a deal.
He’s not going to stop competing.
“If I go out and do what I can do, if not for this team, then it could be for some other team,” he said. “I am just focused on showing up every day and playing well. I had to play well before he showed up and I still have to do that.”
Beckham, the former White Sox second baseman and a long-time thorn in the Tigers’ side, is 31 and he’s already said this is a watershed spring in terms of his baseball career. He has played more games in the minor leagues the last two seasons with the Mariners (177) than he had before he broke into the big leagues (88).
He’s had his fill of riding the Triple-A shuttle. As he said on Sunday, if he’s not playing in the big leagues this year, “maybe it’s time to do something else.”
He was a lot closer to making the Tigers’ 25-man roster on Tuesday than he is today.
Around the horn
The Tigers will kick off the exhibition season at 1 p.m. Friday against Lakeland’s Southeastern University (11-2). Right-hander Spencer Turnbull will get the start. The Tigers are expected to use a different pitcher every inning. Prospects Casey Mize, Kyle Funkhouser and Gregory Soto are expected to pitch.
…The Grapefruit League schedule opens Saturday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin. Left-hander Matt Moore, a free-agent signee this offseason, is expected to start. Right-hander Tyson Ross, the other free-agent signee, will start the home opener at Marchant Stadium on Sunday against the Phillies.
…The Tigers have split-squad games on Monday, against the Phillies in Clearwater and against the Cardinals in Jupiter. Jordan Zimmermann is expected to start the home game, with Daniel Norris going at Clearwater. Matthew Boyd will work Tuesday against the Mets at Port St. Lucie.
…Michael Fulmer, who threw his first live batting practice session on Thursday, is expected to make his first start at home on Wednesday against the Yankees.
…Left-hander Daniel Stumpf said he will throw his first live session to minor-league hitters on the back fields on Sunday. “He was having a little soreness and we just said, don’t fool around with it this early,” Gardenhire said. “He’s full-go now.”