Three years ago, Cade Smith said no to professional baseball and yes to the University of Hawaii.
But now, the right-handed pitcher from Abbotsford is changing course.
Smith confirmed Tuesday morning that he has signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians.
“It’s weird because of the circumstances this year,” he said. “But I’m really excited to get into it and learn more about my development and pitching and all the little things that can take me to the next level.”
The Chilliwack Minor Baseball alum spent parts of three campaigns with the U of Hawaii’s Warriors after turning down a pro opportunity with Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins, who drafted him in the 16th round in 2017.
This year, his junior season was cut short by COVID-19. The six-foot-five and 230 pound hurler threw just 18.1 innings before the pandemic shut things down, producing a 4.42 earned-run average, 1.42 WHIP (walks and hits divided by innings pitched), 22 strikeouts and eight walks.
Smith said he heard from a couple other teams besides Cleveland once word got out that he was open to leaving school, but the Indians’ track record with pitcher development was too much to pass on.
“They have a history of being cutting edge and developing a lot of pitchers from within, and they spent a fair amount of time talking with me and going into depth about what their player development looks like,” he explained. “They focus on creating an environment that is cohesive and united and family oriented. They emphasize the importance of it not being just a number on a field, but rather a person, and creating an environment where that person can be comfortable and grow.”
It wasn’t an easy decision to turn pro for a guy who is focused on education. Smith enrolled in the pre-med program at the U of Hawaii and currently majors in biology.
Ultimately, Smith knows he can finish his degree later, but the window to play pro baseball doesn’t stay open for long.
“It’s difficult to be a student athlete in college and balance academics and baseball, and I felt I’d matured to the point where I’m emotionally and physically ready to get started,” he said. “I wanted to put all my attention into one thing rather than split them between two very intense activities.”
It’s an uncertain time for a ballplayer, not knowing if there will be a minor league season in 2020.
Right away, Smith is participating in video calls with the Indians to familiarize himself with the organization and collaborate on a personalized development plan.
“When we are able to get to a facility and start working, we can hit the ground running, and hopefully that happens in the fall,” he said.
If there are no games until 2021, Smith will have to be content with hitting the weights, throwing simulated games and doing other things. But like hundreds of pro ballplayers, he believes there’s no substitute for seeing live action against live hitters.
“I think that playing games is more fun because you get to to go out and compete and not be so focused and worried about all the little things,” he said. “You get to just go out and play and that’s when it’s enjoyable. If you’re not having fun in what you’re learning and doing, you’re doing it the wrong way.
“Absolutely the training and weights is super valuable, but it is super important to have fun and enjoy it.”
Minor league baseball is noted as a grind, with long bus rides, shabby hotels and low pay. The attrition rate is high and the odds of making it to ‘the Show’ are slim.
But for the moment, Smith’s dream is alive and his journey is just getting started.
“If you never try, you never know if you’ll make it or not,” he said. “The important thing for me is to be able to walk away from the game saying, ‘I put into it everything I had. There’s nothing I feel I cheated myself on and I am satisfied with my effort. I feel I truly reached my potential and that was as good as I could get. And wherever it took me, it took me. So be it.”
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