Smith's rookie year full of changes, big breaks
After impressive debut, right-hander will skip offseason ball
SAN DIEGO -- Had things been different, Burch Smith would most likely be preparing to pitch for the Peoria Javelinas this week in the Arizona Fall League.
After all, Smith's name was on the August list of Padres prospects who were designated to pitch in the AFL -- with the caveat that the organization would revisit the list after monitoring Smith's workload in September.
Smith did not only make four starts and amass 23 2/3 innings in the final month of the season, but he also allowed two or fewer runs in three of those four starts, including a gem in Atlanta where he opened the game with five no-hit innings against the playoff-bound Braves.
The Padres had seen plenty. They had seen enough -- and so had Smith.
"I told them at the end of the year that I was a little tired," Smith said. "It was kind of a group decision. They said to get my rest and be ready come back strong for the start of Spring Training."
Smith went 1-2 with a 3.80 ERA for the Padres in the final month of the season, striking out 31 in 23 2/3 innings, showing something new after two previous stints with the team this season -- the ability to throw his secondary pitches and to throw them for strikes.
"His dominance with velocity in Double-A was very exciting to all of us at the Major League level," Padres manager Bud Black said. "And bringing him to the big leagues was a great eye opener for him in that there is more to pitching than just velocity. He realized that awfully quickly."
Smith made his Major League debut on the road against the Rays on May 11, and he worked a quick 1-2-3 first inning. But Smith ran into big trouble in the second inning, allowing six runs on five hits with two walks.
This was not the Texas League, where Smith had a 1.15 ERA in six starts. Relying on his fastball was not going to cut it, he discovered.
"I started this year in Double-A, and I was able to throw fastball after fastball," Smith said. "But I knew that you had to really pitch in the big leagues. I'm glad I got to get there to do it, to get that experience, not just being told. I got to see it and do it.
"I learned a lot with [pitching coach Darren] Balsley and Buddy, I really learned how to pitch. That was the first time in my career I had to pitch to the best of my ability, and then some, every time in order to have some success."
Smith eventually went back to the Minor Leagues, pitching for Triple-A Tucson before rejoining the team Sept. 2 to pitch in the rotation the rest of the way. Smith returned a more well-rounded pitcher, one not afraid to use more secondary pitches.
Take that start against the Braves on Sept. 15, when Smith allowed three hits over seven scoreless innings with two walks and a career-high 10 strikeouts. Five of his strikeouts came on changeups, with one coming on a curveball.
"We saw the breaking ball, the change -- he does have a lot of good things going for him," Black said. "There's some deception to his delivery; his arm slot creates a different look. And he realized that velocity is great and it's a great weapon for him, but he does have other pitches in his arsenal."
Six days later, against the Dodgers, Smith used his fastball more. He stuck out Yasiel Puig on three pitches -- all fastballs. In six innings, he got Dodgers hitters to swing and miss on nine fastballs.
To be sure, there was a lot to digest for Smith, who entered the 2013 season having thrown just 130 2/3 professional innings. He was a 14th-round Draft pick in 2011 out of the University of Oklahoma.
"My first year in pro ball, I was in the same place [Single-A Lake Elsinore]," Smith said. "But this year was a lot different, picking up, going to the next city, going up and down. It was a good year overall. I accomplished one of the major goals I had: to make it to the big leagues. The next goal would be to stay."
Smith will get that shot in Spring Training, along with another rookie who fared well, left-hander Robbie Erlin. The Padres could look to add a pitcher this winter but have several candidates for the five spots in the rotation, including Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross and Eric Stults.