PEORIA, Ariz. — A year ago at this time, Carter Capps and Steven Pryor weren’t even mentioned in the competition conversation for spots in the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen.
Capps had never pitched above Class A, while Pryor had just 17 appearances in Class AA Jackson.
But by the end of last season, both flame-throwing right-handers were solid contributors for the bullpen and seem to be headed there again for prominent roles in the 2013 season.
So who could be this season’s Capps or Pryor? Which young minor league reliever could perhaps pitch his way into the Mariners bullpen by the end of the year?
The smart money should be on Carson Smith.
Smith is a hard-throwing kid from west Texas with a slightly odd side-arm delivery, who did what many pitchers struggle to do — pitch well in the hitter friendly Class A Cal League. Last season, Smith, who was taken in the eighth round of the 2011 draft out of Texas State University, posted a 5-1 record with a 2.90 earned run average and 15 saves in 49 relief appearances at the Class A level. In 60 innings, he struck out 72 hitters.
“I was getting acclimated to the bullpen,” said Smith, who was a starter with a 9-3 record and a 1.99 ERA in his final season at TSU. “I thought I did all right (in the bullpen). I had a rocky start, but I got more comfortable as the season went on.”
Indeed, Smith’s overall numbers are solid. But they actually hide how dominant he was in the second half of the Class A season.
He was at times unhittable after taking over the closer role on June 15. After that day, he went 14-for-15 in save opportunities in his final 28 appearances. In those 28 games, he gave up just two earned runs in 332/3 innings for a 0.54 ERA. In his last 191/3 innings for the season he didn’t allow an earned run.
It’s not just the stats that Smith puts up, but how accumulates them. He does it with a delivery that is different from just about every pitcher in the organization.
Smith’s side-arm throwing motion that looks like he’s whipping the baseball in a violent fashion. It’s not as pronounced as submarine pitchers, but it’s not close to a normal motion either.
“It’s very abnormal,” Smith said. “People say it’s quirky.”
They use other words to describe it.
“He’s got a really weird arm angle,” said catcher John Hicks, who caught him last year. “He kind of slings it.”
Said pitching coach Carl Willis: “He’s got a little funk to him that you don’t see as often from a right-hander.
Smith can only shrug his shoulders at the descriptions.
“It’s kind of funky,” he said. “But it’s what comes natural to me.”
People tried to change Smith as a kid growing up in Midland, Texas. At Grayson County Junior College, he was asked to throw more overhand delivery.
“It didn’t work out so well,” he said
Smith transferred to Texas State and at first he was throwing from different arm slots. Sometimes it was overhand and other times he would drop down and throw from a very low angle. Eventually, he settled for one arm slot that’s somewhere in between.
With one arm slot, the consistency came along with some movement.
By throwing from that angle, Smith’s fastball, which was clocked at 92 on Saturday and touched 95 last season, generates a tremendous sinking movement that bores down and in on right-handed hitters. He also throws an slider that has been rated as the best in the Mariners organization.
“I’ve always been fond of my breaking ball,” Smith said. “I’ve been throwing it since I was 10 years old. Over time, I got consistent with it. It’s pretty sharp right now.”
The guy who caught him most of last year, and on Saturday, knows all about Smith’s repertoire.
“He’s got really great stuff,” Hicks said. “First, he throws 95 from down there and has a ton of sink on the ball. Then he comes at you with a slider from the same arm slot that’s mid-80s. It looks like the fastball coming out of his hand and it just drops hard like a hard slurvish break.”
And there’s more.
“People don’t realize he has pretty good changeup to,” Hicks said. “When he has the grip right and slows it down a little bit, it’s a low to mid-80s changeup that drops off the table.”
It’s not fun for opposing hitters.
“I don’t know if I was a right-hander if I’d be very comfortable with all that coming at me,” Willis said.
Hicks chuckles because he saw that first hand.
“You get a lot of (batters) that step in and you can tell they don’t seem very comfortable at all,” he said.
So, will Smith be the next reliever to make the jump to the big leagues? He will likely start the season with Class AA Jackson — the same place where Capps and Pryor started last season.
“It’s pretty far down the road to look at that,” Smith said. “But it’s good to know the Mariners will move guys up like that. They had good seasons last year. I’d like to follow in their footsteps.”
He impressed the right person on Saturday in the Mariners 8-6 victory over San Diego, pitching one scoreless inning and striking out one batter.
“He’s deceptive,” manager Eric Wedge said. “He widens the plate. He has that power sinker and the power slider, too. When you can do that, particularly against right-handers, you are going to be very effective.”