Sunday, January 18, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Pete Smith

Baseball is filled with players who have a career season. Maybe their BABIP went wonky in the positive direction or they got unusually lucky with a few flyballs that landed three feet in front of the left-center wall instead of beyond it. But even those players often have had a somewhat productive career filled with average seasons.

Today's random ex-Brave had one season where he looked like he would give the Braves a true embarrassment of riches, but just as quickly, he became an afterthought who was sent packing. In 1992, Pete Smith was humming at Richmond until August, but once he landed in the majors, he was one of the hottest pitchers in the majors. I remember having a poster after Greg Maddux signed with the title "Five Ace's" with Smith joining the likes of three Hall of Famers and Steve Avery. Yet, before the 1994 season, he was traded to the Mets for a fourth outfielder. That's just the way it goes for a pitcher who never lived up to the promise.

Drafted in 1984 with the 21st overall pick by the Phillies, Smith graduated from the same school as Amy Poehler. At the time, Smith projected well as a pro and was picked seven choices ahead of recent Random Ex-Brave Norm Charlton and several choices ahead of second rounders Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Al Leiter. That 1984 draft was packed.

The often horrible Braves would acquire Smith after he spent just one-and-a-half seasons in the Phillies organization, sending Milt Thompson and Steve Bedrosian to Philadelphia for Ozzie Virgil and the young pitcher. Smith was rushed to AA and ultimately the majors, making his debut as a 21 year-old for six starts in 1987. He was a regular in the rotation for the next three seasons, notably throwing three shutouts in 1988 and suffering from injuries in 1990. When the Streak began the following year, Smith was holding down the fifth spot behind Glavine, Avery, John Smoltz, and Charlie Liebrandt, but he would struggle and with the Braves in a surprise playoff hunt, Atlanta sent Smith to the minors in July and basically adopted a four-man staff. Smith took the demotion hard and was lit up both in Macon and Richmond. In 13 starts, Smith's minor league ERA was 7.42. 

The Braves let veteran Mike Bielecki compete for the starting gig in 1992 and his play sent Smith back to the minors to open the season. Smith would make one relief appearance on June 3rd, but spent the rest of the time shaking off the demotion and pitching well for Richmond. This served him well as Bielecki, who had been pitching excellent ball himself, suffered a season-ending elbow injury at the end of July. Bielecki's misfortune allowed Smith to reclaim his fifth starting spot. At the time, the Braves were trying to move past the Cincinnati Reds, who were a half-game up when play started on August 2nd. On that day, the Braves faced the Giants in a double header with Smith getting the starting assignment in the opener facing Bill Swift, picked second overall in that 1984 draft. Smith would shut the Giants down for eight scoreless innings and the Braves rolled 3-0 in the first game. After winning the second game as well, the Braves took over first and would not give it back.

Part of the reason for that was that the Reds faded, winning half of their remaining 60 games while the Braves went 39-22 down the stretch. But Smith deserved some of the credit. He started ten games and the Braves won each game. He gave up three runs just once and in one other time, he surrendered four. Outside of that, he was almost untouchable, throwing a four-hit shutout in the Astrodome and throwing a complete game against the Cardinals where he surrendered just one earned run. Smith was shining on the game's best staff, but even though he finished with a 2.05 ERA in 79 innings with a 1.15 WHIP, Smith was still the fifth guy and when the playoffs came, he got the short end of the stick and went to the pen. Notably, he logged three innings in relief of Avery to keep Game Six of the World Series against the Blue Jays at a 2-1 deficit. The Braves would eventually tie it on an Otis Nixon RBI single with two outs in the ninth, but lost the game in extra innings, which that sent the Braves to back-to-back losses in the World Series.

1992 was the only postseason experience Smith would have. He would struggle to repeat the previous's year success in 1993. After a 1.50 ERA in four starts to open the year, the wheels came off and with the Braves desperately trying to win the NL West with the surging Giants threatening, the Braves would basically adopt a four-man rotation for the final two months with Kent Mercker making spot starts. 

As the Braves geared up for 1994, they opened up the fifth starter spot for a competition that Mercker would ultimately win and memorably throw an early-season no-hitter in Los Angeles. That left no room for Smith and the Braves sent him to their new divisional foes, the New York Mets, acquiring outfielder Dave Gallagher to provide depth to their bench. Smith would struggle in Flushing, posting a neat, but awful, 5.55 ERA. The Reds signed him ahead of the 1995 season, but they cut him in July. After a year in the minors, Smith closed out his major league career with a couple of years playing for the Padres and Orioles. He tried to prolong it further, but after one more year in the minors, Smith's career was over before the new century began. 

Since retiring, Smith has stayed involved with the game, often playing with the Braves Alumni Association for charity events. And hey, 1992 was still pretty cool so he always has that in his back pocket for bragging purposes. 

Want more Ex-Braves? Check out the last three...

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