We were at Papago Park for the Oakland A's minor league spring training practice on Monday. Inside…
2009 Breakout Candidate: Jake Smith, C
Name: Jake Smith
The Oakland A's took Smith in the 21st round of the 2006 draft out of East Carolina University. The right-handed hitting backstop had a distinguished career at ECU, and he hit .344 with a 977 OPS during his senior season. He was also given the Johnny Bench award, which is bestowed on the nation's top collegiate catcher.
After signing, Smith reported to short-season Vancouver, where he, like so many prospects, struggled to hit in an unfriendly hitter's atmosphere. In 51 games, Smith batted only .216 with a .303 OBP. Things got better for Smith in 2007 despite the fact that he was still playing in a bad hitter's environment with Low-A Kane County. Smith batted .293 with an impressive .382 OBP. Unfortunately, those numbers came in only 37 games. Smith was sidelined in late May and underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing arm. That injury ended his season.
A torn labrum is a serious injury, especially for a catcher who relies on a strong arm and a quick release to control the running game. The recovery is usually four-to-nine months for position players, but it can often cost pitchers an entire year. Smith made it back on the field in April, but he was limited to DH duties for the early part of the season. In late May, the A's sent Smith back to extended spring training (despite the fact that he was hitting .289 for the Cougars) to get some reps in at catcher.
Smith returned to Kane County in late June and was one of the Cougars' primary catchers for the rest of the season. The North Carolina native had a solid season at the plate. In 81 total games, he hit .288 with six homers and a .357 OBP. When he was catching, his hitting was even better, as he compiled a .313 average and hit all six of his homeruns and posted a 913 OPS in 131 at-bats.
Because he was a college senior draft pick and he has missed much of the past two seasons, Smith is old for his level (which figures to be High-A Stockton next season). However, catchers often develop later than other players and Smith hasn't put much wear-and-tear on his knees the past two seasons because of the shoulder injury. He excelled at the plate in the Midwest League, which bodes well for his chances for a big offensive season with Stockton in the hitter-friendly California League. Defensively, Smith is a solid receiver and he had a strong throwing arm before the surgery. His arm strength was returning by the end of the season.
After returning to Kane County from his stint at extended spring training, his power returned along with his arm strength. Smith posted a .435 SLG with six homers and 17 doubles in 237 at-bats, a good trend heading into the 2009 season. Smith may get the bulk of the catching duties at Stockton early in the season, unless the A's decide to promote 2008 third-round pick Petey Paramore to Stockton. Smith will need to post good numbers and show that he is healthy to keep himself ahead of Paramore and others on the depth chart.
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