BURLINGTON, N.C.—If you’re a Blue Jays fan, then you’ve probably read about the quintet of talented starting pitchers taking the mound for Rookie-level Bluefield this summer. But the Appalachian League Jays also feature a pair of 2011 supplemental first-round picks who can swing the bat in 19-year-old outfielders Jake Anderson and Dwight Smith Jr.
The Blue Jays invested nearly $1.8 million in Anderson (35th overall, and the top player signed by Toronto) and Smith (53rd overall). Scouts lauded Anderson as a potential five-tool player because of his projectable 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame and natural athleticism. The Chino, Calif., native possesses the body and broad shoulders that scouts dream on.
Smith, the son of a big leaguer by the same name, was seen as one of the best pure hitters in the draft due to his above-average bat speed from the left side of the plate and advanced feel for hitting. He hails from McIntosh, Ga.
True to form, Toronto held Anderson and Smith in extended spring training this year before the short-season leagues began play. Both players had minor mechanical adjustments to make with their swings.
“They worked with me more on my hitting stride because I was a guy who leaned into the plate to try to cover the outside part of the plate,” Smith said. “I worked on being more in line with my stride.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Smith has a compact stance and deploys a big stride that raises his front knee as high as belt level to initiate his quick bat. His quieter, more direct stride has produced a more efficient swing path this season.
With Anderson’s long limbs, Bluefield hitting coach Paul Elliott encouraged his pupil to make a few minor tweaks to his righthanded swing by starting his swing with his strong lower half rather than his hands, as he previously had.
“I really worked on using my legs more to get more torque and more power in my swing,” Anderson said.
Anderson also has dedicated much of his time to learning a new position, right field. He spent most of his time in high school as a corner infielder, but the Jays see his future in an outfield corner.
“I thought that both had very good extended programs,” Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said. “Both had very good at-bats, improved defensively and took instruction very well because they are very hungry kids who want to get better.”
If playing in front of crowds and facing older competition weren’t challenging enough, both players dealt with injuries. Smith injured an ankle in extended spring that kept him out of action for three weeks. He missed the first four games of the season and has been making up for the lost time, according to Holmberg. Anderson has dealt with a right shoulder impingement that has prevented him from playing the outfield since the first week of the season. Toronto expects him to return to the outfield in mid-July, but for now he’s in the lineup at DH.
Smith demonstrated his hitting acumen in an early-July series at Burlington. Batting leadoff, he rarely swung at pitches out of the zone and made consistent hard contact. In fact, he swung and missed at only one pitch out of about 50 during 12 plate appearances in the series.
Smith’s advanced approach had translated to the stat sheet. Through 15 games, he ranked second among Appy League teenagers from last year’s draft in both walk (8.2 percent of plate appearances) and strikeout (11.5 percent) rate. That’s a good sign, considering that contact rate tends to stabilize quickly.
“For a young guy he has a great idea of what he is doing up there,” Elliott said. “He is far more mature than any of the other high school guys out there. We keep track of quality at-bats, and he is around 60 percent. That is very good because he hits everything hard.”
During the three-game series at Burlington, Smith produced hard contact in five of his trips to the plate, though four times that resulted only in loud outs. Royals center fielder Bubba Starling was responsible for one such loud out on July 7 when he made a highlight-reel, over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track that sent the home crowd into a frenzy. Though Smith was batting .217/.288/.367 through 60 at-bats, the coaching staff is confident that line will quickly improve.
“We would love to see him hitting .300 right now, but that is just not happening,” Holmberg said. “Most importantly, he has taken many great at-bats and he is hitting the ball hard.”
Smith has logged all of his innings this season in center field, and Holmberg said the organization plans to have him play 70-80 percent of his games in center. He will occasionally move to a corner to increase his versatility.
As people within the Jays organization see more of Anderson, they find more and more similarities with Jake Marisnick, center fielder for Toronto’s high Class A Dunedin affiliate and the No. 37 prospect in baseball at midseason.
“Anderson reminds me a lot of Jake Marisnick,” Elliott said. “I saw Marisnick when he first signed and was in extended, and they were exactly the same—tall, skinny, rangy and looked good. Watching Marisnick’s development over the last three years, Anderson will be the same way—and maybe even be a little stronger.”
“(Anderson) has good hand-eye coordination that produces a nice, smooth stroke,” a National League scout said. “The ball jumps off his bat, and there is certainly more power to come because of the body.”
With further development and maturation, Anderson and Smith have the opportunity to advance through the minors together and one day profile as big league regulars.
“Both kids have tremendous upside and have the chance to be tremendous hitters,” Holmberg said. “Now all they have to do is play, stay healthy, and compete.”