After sitting out the entire 2013 season thanks to a second shoulder surgery, former first-round pick Josh Smoker‘s career looked to be just about over. The Washington Nationals had given up on their former top choice after Smoker had completed just 9.2 innings during the 2012 season. With a fastball hovering in the mid-80’s, Smoker posted a 7.45 ERA in six appearances for the Nationals’ Rookie and Single-A teams. After being selected ahead of players like Todd Frazier and Travis d’Arnaud, Smoker never advanced beyond Single-A in the Washington system. Even after one shoulder surgery in 2008, Smoker knew something still wasn’t right with his arm, and was out of baseball for an entire year following his second time under the knife.
“I only had one year with the Nationals where I actually felt good, but I still didn’t have that extra bit of life in my arm. Something just didn’t ever feel right. My arm never felt the way it did in high school. Having that final shoulder surgery finally got everything cleared up,” Smoker said.
At 25 years old, having never advanced above Single-A, and with two shoulder surgeries under his belt, Smoker’s options were limited when he was ready to return to the mound in 2014. He signed on with the Rockford Aviators of the independent Frontier League. Just looking to have one final season in professional baseball on his own terms, Smoker had a decent year with the Aviators, but nothing spectacular. He pitched to a 4.03 ERA in 28 relief appearances and walked 23 batters in 29.0 innings. Hardly the type of performance that would entice a Major League team to take a shot on a soon-to-be 26-year-old reliever with two shoulder surgeries.
Only one team came to watch Smoker pitch after his independent league season — the New York Mets. With no other teams beating down the doors to sign him, Smoker was off to join the Mets, and throw his first pitches in organized ball since the 2012 season.
“This was my first full season in three years where I was able to throw the ball without pain,” Smoker said. “Last year in independent ball, I was able to throw well, but you still don’t have the workload that you do in an affiliated organization. It was more of a rehab year last year, and there were still days where my arm didn’t feel great. This year was the first year in a long time where I felt like nobody could hit me.”
Truthfully, no one could hit the 6’2″ left-hander this season. In 49.0 innings, Smoker allowed only 39 hits and struck out 60. The control issues that bothered him as he worked back into form with Rockford were gone, as Smoker walked only 19 on the season. Only one ball left the yard with him on the mound. More importantly, Smoker finally reached Double-A for the first time, nine years after being drafted. Better yet, his fastball tickled triple digits all season.
“I did hit 100 two or three times. I was anywhere from 95 to 98, and sat close to 96 all year,” Smoker said. “I knew I was on that night. My arm felt good, and it was cool to finally get the fastball back again.”
This is a huge comeback story from a player who seemed to be done. Taking a full year off to allow his arm to reset worked wonders for Smoker.
“It was good for me physically. Baseball has a long season, and it really, really wears on your body. After a few seasons, you find yourself tiring more easily than you used to. Mentally, the year off was a big game-changer. Then last year, playing in the independent league made baseball fun again. You are playing professionally, but at the end of the day, you are going to the field to have a good time. Last year helped me prepare a lot for this year.”
For a player who came out of high school with huge expectations and first round status, baseball’s place in Josh Smoker’s life became different than it ever had in the past. To succeed this year, he needed to rediscover the joy of the game.
“I was having fun with the Nationals, but at the same time, I was putting too much pressure on myself. That was affecting me. I knew my arm wasn’t right; the ball wasn’t coming out right. Adding the pressure on top made it that much harder to pitch well and be happy. It was just really hard to get on the mound knowing you didn’t have your best stuff and that the result was probably not going to be a long [outing]. It got pretty dreadful knowing I had that to look forward to when I came to the field.”
Calling it a career became a very real possibility for Smoker, especially after the Nationals released him.
“I started to wonder if everything that made me a first round pick would ever come back. It didn’t feel like things were ever going to work out, and I started to wonder if it was time to go back to college,” Smoker explained. “Before the Mets signed me this year, I was having a hard time even getting scouts to come watch me throw. The independent year was supposed to just be a year for me to go out happy with my baseball career.”
Smoker’s contract with the Mets came about unexpectedly. Needing a bullpen catcher to handle his sessions, Smoker connected with Paul Fletcher, a pitching coach with another independent league team, the York Revolution. Fletcher also happens to serve as a roving scout. He alerted the Mets about Smoker, and the rest is history.
“The Mets are the only team that gave me the offer. They were the only team that watched me throw. I am incredibly grateful to the organization. They saw something in me and were willing to take a chance. They are literally the only team who would give me a chance. I owe so much to them. If you would have told me last year that I would be in this position in 2015, I would have called you crazy.”
The Mets abandoned the notion that Smoker would be a starter. His best season in the Nationals organization came in his one full season out of the bullpen. Pitching in relief suits Smoker, as he is able to work aggressively with his now outstanding fastball. The feel for his secondary pitches is gradually returning, and as those sharpen up, he should be given a chance in the Mets bullpen. Working hard on his slider will be an area of focus over the winter leading up to Spring Training. As the dust settles on the 2015 season, there is a high likelihood that Smoker will be added to the New York 40-man roster. With a triple digit fastball and an improving slider, Smoker could become a lethal weapon against left-handed batters at the Major League level.
“I would love to stay with the Mets,” Smoker said. “The only place where I have any guarantees is with the Mets, and I would obviously love to stay here. It’s an organization where I feel comfortable, and I’ve had a lot of fun.”
The Mets have a need for middle relief help, and left-handers who throw 100 mph with good command don’t grow on trees. As unlikely as it sounds, one answer to the middle relief questions is a pitcher who will turn 27 before the start of the 2016 season who has two shoulder surgeries to his name and zero career pitches above Double-A.
How’s that for a guy who just wanted to go out on top in independent league ball?