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Burch Smith has chance to make Oakland A’s roster

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The quiet offseason acquisition has a path to the 2020 Opening Day squad

Oakland Athletics Summer Workouts Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

When the 2020 MLB season begins next week, active rosters will open at 30 players instead of the new standard of 26, due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. That means extra opportunities for pitchers who may normally have been battling for the final spots in their teams’ bullpens, with room for 10 or more relievers instead of eight. Pitchers like Burch Smith.

The Oakland A’s acquired Smith from the Giants in February, in exchange for cash considerations. The deal itself was notable because it was the first MLB trade between Oakland and San Francisco in nearly three decades, since Darren Lewis went west across the bridge for Ernie Riles in 1990. There’s dispute about whether to count the A’s 2004 purchase of pitcher Adam Pettyjohn, who was in the minors at the time and never appeared in the bigs for either team, but either way the point is it’d been a long time since these two local rivals had done business together.

Upon his arrival on the A’s 40-man roster, it wasn’t clear if there would be room for Smith in an already crowded bullpen. Lessening his chance even further was the fact that he has a minor league option remaining, meaning he can be stashed in Triple-A if MLB space is needed for someone else who’s out of options. But now, with perhaps 10 spots available and an increased need for multi-inning arms in a wonky early season, the right-hander suddenly looks like a much better bet.

Career history

Smith was a nondescript draft pick in 2011, by the Padres in the 14th round out of college. However, by 2013 he had stormed his way to the majors after a rapid rise through the farm system as a starter. His MLB debut year didn’t go well, yielding a ghastly 6.44 ERA (5.47 FIP) in three dozen innings, but there were a couple quality starts mixed in and it was still impressive that he was there at all at age 23.

Unfortunately, Smith’s encouraging trajectory was derailed by injuries. He only pitched two games in the minors in 2014 but made it back for the Arizona Fall League, and then in early 2015 he had the dreaded Tommy John surgery. He didn’t pitch again until 2017.

Now in the Rays system, he returned strong in the minors in ‘17, earning a selection in the Rule 5 draft the next winter and thus an open path back to the majors. He wound up in Kansas City in 2018 where he threw 78 innings as a swingman, with plenty of strikeouts but also a lot of walks, far too many homers, and a 6.92 ERA. That was enough to stick with the Royals all year, but not enough for them to keep him after that, and he was DFA’d in November and became a free agent.

Smith signed with the Brewers in 2019, throwing a dozen shaky innings before being DFA’d in August. He caught on with the Giants and fared well in 10 games, but got yet another DFA over the winter. That’s when the A’s pounced.

Now age 30, Smith hasn’t yet found MLB success but has done enough to keep getting chances. His numbers from the last two seasons combined (55 games, six of them starts):

Smith, 2018-19 MLB: 6.61 ERA, 99⅓ ip, 97 Ks, 54 BB, 18 HR, 5.36 FIP

That line isn’t pretty, and Statcast agrees he’s been hit hard (.349 xwOBA, bad), but at least he can rack up the strikeouts with his solid 11.0% swinging-strike rate. His Triple-A stats from last year better demonstrate his potential, in 18 games (17 starts) in the outrageous hitting environment of the Pacific Coast League:

Smith, 2019 AAA: 2.63 ERA, 92⅓ ip, 103 Ks, 46 BB, 7 HR, 65 hits, 4.31 FIP

Still some walks, but keeping the ball in the park is no joke in the PCL.

Scouting report

In terms of stuff, the 6’4, 225-pounder brings some power. In 2018 his fastball reached 98.8 mph on Statcast and last year it topped out at 96.6, and he’s already working at 96 right now during Summer Camp. He uses his four-seamer nearly two-third of the time, averaging around 93 mph overall with it in a mostly multi-inning role.

The rest of Smith’s offerings are split between a 78 mph curve and an 82 mph changeup, the latter of which offers double-digit velocity separation from his heater. It’s enough to be a starter’s arsenal, with the variety to address hitters on both sides of the plate, but you can see how it could play up in shorter stints — he can dial up the fastball and not worry about having enough weapons to retire batters multiple times, and it’s less of a problem if a bit of wildness runs up his pitch count.

Here he is blowing one by a good MLB hitter.

For more video, this one claims to include every single out recorded by Smith in the majors, which should add up to 407. In an extra career highlight, at the plate in the NL, Smith’s first career hit came against Peak Clayton Kershaw in 2013 (video link).

Add it all up, and you’ve got a power swingman who is perpetually worth a try in the majors. He hasn’t stuck anywhere yet, but he still could someday, and Oakland hopes that day will be here and now.

Roster outlook

So where does Smith fit into the A’s 2020 roster?

We can reasonably expect 15 spots for pitchers out of the Opening Day 30-man squad. The lines between starter and reliever might be blurred, but these 14 names would seem to be locks, barring injuries or coronavirus tests: Montas, Manaea, Fiers, Bassitt, Luzardo, Puk, Mengden, Hendriks, Petit, Soria, Diekman, McFarland, Trivino, Wendelken. Of that group, Trivino could theoretically be stashed in the minors, but Mengden and Wendelken are two bubble guys who are out of options and have to make the team.

That leaves one more spot, and minimal competition. Starters Paul Blackburn and Daniel Gossett are still in the picture, but they’re the only other MLB-ready arms on the 40-man roster. There are also three minor league free agents in camp, between Lucas Luetge, Jaime Schultz, and Jordan Weems, but none are on the 40-man and something else would have to give on the roster in order to squeeze them in.

That likely leaves three optionable pitchers for one final spot, all of them bearing similar profiles as swingmen who have struggled at the MLB level. One advantage Smith has over Blackburn and Gossett is his superior velocity, which could perhaps play better in the relief duties that will be asked of whoever gets the job. Whatever the pecking order may be for now, though, Smith definitely seems primed for another crack at the bigs sooner than later, with a real chance at the Opening Day roster.

As a reminder, here’s the A’s 60-man player pool. Players with asterisks** are the favorites to make the Opening Day 30-man roster, in my speculative opinion. Players in —italics are not on the 40-man roster, which currently stands at 39 until pitcher Mengden is activated from the injured list.

Oakland A's 60-man pool
Pitchers Hitters
Starters

Frankie Montas (R)**
Sean Manaea (L)**
Mike Fiers (R)**
Chris Bassitt (R)**
Jesus Luzardo (L)**
A.J. Puk (L)**
Paul Blackburn (R)
Daniel Gossett (R)
—Daniel Mengden (R)**
Grant Holmes (R)
Daulton Jefferies (R)
James Kaprielian (R)
—Tyler Baum (R)
—Parker Dunshee (R)
—Brian Howard (R)


Relievers

Liam Hendriks (R)**
Yusmeiro Petit (R)**
Joakim Soria (R)**
Jake Diekman (L)**
T.J. McFarland (L)**
Burch Smith (R)**
Lou Trivino (R)**
J.B. Wendelken (R)**
—Lucas Luetge (L)
—Jaime Schultz (R)
—Jordan Weems (R)
—Wandisson Charles (R)
—Miguel Romero (R)
Catchers

Sean Murphy (R)**
Austin Allen (L)**
Jonah Heim (S)
—Carlos Perez (R)
—Kyle McCann (L)
—Tyler Soderstrom (L)


Infielders

Matt Olson (L)**
Marcus Semien (R)**
Matt Chapman (R)**
Tony Kemp (L)**
Franklin Barreto (R)**
Vimael Machin (L)**
Sheldon Neuse (R)
—Eric Campbell (R)
—Ryan Goins (L)
—Nate Orf (R)
—Nick Allen (R)
—Logan Davidson (S)
—Robert Puason (S)


Outfielders

Khris Davis (R)**
Mark Canha (R)**
Ramon Laureano (R)**
Stephen Piscotty (R)**
Robbie Grossman (S)**
Chad Pinder (R)**
Seth Brown (L)**
Skye Bolt (S)
Luis Barrera (L)
Dustin Fowler (L)
—Brayan Buelvas (R)
—Greg Deichmann (L)
—Buddy Reed (S)

The A’s will face Smith’s most recent former team, the Giants, in two exhibition games Monday and Tuesday, so perhaps he’ll get a chance to face them. Oakland’s regular season begins July 24, at home against the Angels.