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The Regression of a Minor Leaguer

August 27, 2006 | By RotoRob | comment on this post

In 2003, the future looked very bright for Reds’ outfield prospect Stephen Smitherman.

He was in the midst of a season that would include his first taste of not only Triple-A, but a 21-game major league trial; a year that would be highlighted by recognition as the Reds’ Minor Leaguer of the Year and national exposure for hitting the game-winning home run in the Futures Game.

Indeed, after that dominating Double-A performance (.310, 19 homers, 11 steals) before his promotion to Triple-A , Smitherman looked like a can’t-miss prospect and serious keeper league selection.

Well, plenty can change in three years because since then, Smitherman has not returned to the majors. In fact, this season, he hasn’t even played above Double-A ball as his career has spiralled into a serious mode of regression.

In 2004, Smitherman was decent, if unspectular, in his first full year of Triple-A, recording a 760 OPS and scoring 55 runs with 35 doubles and 10 homers, but just five steals in 129 games. Last year, however, he struggled in Triple-A (605 OPS in 40 games) and had to be sent back down to Double-A where in 86 games he was better (865 OPS), but still not as good as he was in that breakout 2003 campaign.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Reds tired of their 23rd round pick from 2000, cutting Smitherman free this spring. The 6’4″, 235-pounder caught on in the Padres’ organization, and has spent the season at Double-A Mobile.

Has the change in scenery helped? Hell, no.

Smitherman has struggled badly this year, with just an 825 OPS through 79 games. At this point, if he has even a three-year run as a fourth or fifth major league outfielder, that would be surprising. Smitherman turns 28 on Friday and is batting just .176 over his last 10 games, so he certainly does not look ready to even head back to Triple-A.

Smitherman is a good illustration of how a very fine-looking prospect can suddenly become an organizational player after slipping off track for just a year or two. When you’re picking prospects to line your keeper league system with, you need to beat the bushes hard to weed out the Stephen Smithermans from the Joe Mauers of the world.

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