Tribe Keeps Smith Over Young Pitchers

Corey Smith ... worth keeping on roster?

The Cleveland Indians look at Corey Smith and see a young man with tremendous bat speed and hard-to-find right-handed power.<br><br> I look at Smith and see a highly-overrated youngster whose lack of offensive production has been overshadowed only by his defensive shortcomings.<br>

The Cleveland Indians considered him a player worthy of being kept on their 40-man roster.

I view his inclusion on the roster as a total waste of vital space that might very well have been better used to keep either Daniel Denham or J.D. Martin, two of the talented quartet of high school pitchers selected high in the 2001 draft.

As a result of Smith being protected, either Denham, the team's first-round choice in '01, and/or Martin, a sandwich pick that same year, will possibly be lost in next week's Rule 5 Draft. Both pitched well last year, although apparently not well enough to convince the hierarchy that their talent will translate into success on the major-league level.

Are the Indians right in keeping Smith?

We probably won't know the answer to that question for several years, but farm director John Farrell is standing firmly behind the Tribe's No. 1 draft choice in 2000 despite the fact Smith opted not to play winter ball, where he was supposed to continue his transition from third base to the outfield.

"We exposed him to the outfield in the Instructional League," Farrell said, while admitting that the window of opportunity is running out on Smith. The team wants to consider all defensive options as soon as possible because in two years they will either be forced to freeze him on the major-league level or outright him as a six-year minor league free agent.

The decision has been made to move him to the outfield. "Right now, an outfield position seems to be the best fit because you have multiple positions there as opposed to one third baseman," Farrell said, noting that Smith's immediate path to the majors will be blocked by Aaron Boone, who will man the hot corner for the major-league team in 2005 and possibly 2006 as well.

The Indians also have at least two solid third base prospects right on Smith's heels in Kevin Kouzmanoff and Matt Whitney. Plus, Pat Osborn had a very solid season at Kinston.

Farrell openly acknowledges that Smith has not lived up to expectations at third base. In 128 games at Akron this past year, he had 37 errors and also had three errors in five games at Buffalo. In 2003, he had 45 errors in 127 games at Akron and now, in 581 minor-league games, has a whopping 198 errors.

"The defensive side of things have been slower than anyone anticipated, even Corey himself," Farrell said.

The transition to outfield hit a glitch, however, when Smith decided to forego winter ball. "He chose not to go," Farrell said matter-of-factly. "Only he can tell us how he feels and if he feels that time at home and working out at home is going to give him a break and prepare him for spring training. That's his prerogative."

It was obvious from his play in the Instructional League that Smith needs as much work as possible in the outfield. "There is no one, neither Corey Smith nor anyone who worked with him, that will say that he is an accomplished right-fielder right now," Farrell said. "He needs work in the outfield and we will continue to work at that.

"It's disappointing that he didn't take it (winter ball) as an opportunity to continue to develop in that area, and to face a step-up in pitching."

Asked if he thought Smith's refusal to play winter ball was a sign that he didn't want to move to the outfield, Farrell said, "I don't know. I can't answer that."

Still, the Indians refuse to give up on him for the simple reason that he brings offensive qualities few minor-leaguers possess.

"Right-handed power is something that is not easily acquired," Farrell said. "Corey has every characteristic and every talent to say that he can be an above-average right-handed power hitter. The things that Corey has are bat speed and improving power."

Smith, who repeated at Class AA in 2004, batted .249 with a career-high 19 homers and 66 RBI in 454 at-bats for the Aeros. He hit .271 with nine homers and 64 RBI at Akron in 2003.

"The one thing that we can't totally rely on are performance numbers," Farrell said. "We have to balance the numbers the player puts up with the evaluation of their physical abilities and whether that physical ability will play consistently at the major-league level.

"Everything about Corey Smith indicates that he should be a productive major-league player. Has it happened to date? No it hasn't. Have there been improvements? Yeah, there have. There have been improvements in terms of his overall power numbers. They have increased year by year."

But have they truly improved enough to warrant his remaining on the 40-man roster at the expense of a talented young arm?

That's the question that can be debated.

The Indians might think it will be easier to get Denham and Martin through the Rule 5 Draft in that if they are claimed, they will have to spend the entire season on the major-league level or be offered back to the Tribe. Neither pitcher is realistically ready for the majors. But if a team isn't a true a contender, it might take a shot at one or both.

It is quite common for a player to be offered back to his original team, sometimes on multiple occasions. Matt White was twice drafted in the Rule 5, and was twice sent back to the Indians.

However, that always seems to stunt a player's development.

"It can impact a player a couple of different ways," Farrell acknowledges. "One, if the player sticks at the major-league level, he loses an entire year of development because he is going to sit on the bench. A position player may get 100 at-bats. If they are pitchers, they will probably pitch out of the bullpen and really not get a whole lot of innings.

"The ultimate expectations of that player are diminished a little bit because he has such a drop-off in workload.

"Secondly, if a player is drafted and comes back to the organization, he often comes back a little bit jaded because the original organization didn't protect him. He has the perception the organization doesn't view him as highly as others.

"The player can look upon that negatively when he comes back. He thinks he is coming back to an organization that doesn't like him to begin with. It can have a lingering affect. We saw that with Hector Luna for the first six to eight weeks when he came back before he really turned it around. It is a stark reality of where a player stacks up in an organization and that can be much less than his own expectations."

Asked how frustrating it is to have to expose talented young players in the draft, Farrell said, "It's one of the elements of the business that we work in. You can look at it as you are a victim of your own success, or you can look at it like people respect what we are doing; both in terns of scouting and how we have developed players within our system to the point we have players dotting rosters around the major leagues. It is a strong indication of our approach here."

But no matter how much pride comes from seeing your players in the majors, it still hurts when they aren't performing while wearing Chief Wahoo.

"You do take it personally because you get personally involved with the players," Farrell said. "When you see them go to other organizations, it is a piece of you that has left the Cleveland Indians. But those are the rules that we operate under and we're not going to change those rules."

The Indians have had 10 players selected in the major-league portion of the Rule 5 Draft the past two years. There very well could be several more this year.

Only time will tell if one of them is selected at the expense of keeping a player who has tremendous potential, but few stats to back it up.

The Indians have seen Corey Smith make numerous errors the past four seasons.

Hopefully, the Indians haven't committed a huge one of their own.

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