FORT LAUDERDALE—First baseman Matt Smith probably won't ever shed the tag of signing as a nondrafted free agent, but after his pro debut, he's at least made sure he no longer is unheralded.
Smith required Tommy John surgery during spring 2011, following his senior year at Mississippi. The Marlins signed him that November, then sent him to low Class A Greensboro to begin 2012.
"We needed somebody and he came up and provided a spark for our team," Grasshoppers manager Dave Berg said. "Just a strong guy, has power all over."
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound, righty-swinging Smith ranked second among South Atlantic League hitters with 20 homers in just 90 games. He hit .279/.358/.506 in 340 at-bats, helping Greensboro reach the SAL finals.
Smith's power isn't simply a product of the Grasshoppers' bandbox of a ballpark. Berg witnessed plenty of 400-foot homers in road venues, where Smith hit half his homers. His OPS tailed off by 228 points in road contests, however, dropping to .756.
"He hits the ball hard all the time," Berg said. "He's got opposite-field power. If he can try not to do too much, he'll be better off. That comes with experience . . . Even when he doesn't hit home runs he hits missiles."
The 25-year-old Smith saw his production slow in June, when he hit .233 (17-for-73) with a home run. Berg attributed it to first-year growing pains, but Smith also had plenty going on off the field with the birth of a child.
Defense will be an area to monitor for Smith in 2013. Coming off elbow surgery, he spent considerable time at DH and played just 23 games at first base.
"His arm seemed to get better as the year went on," Berg said. "A benefit for him will be playing first base every day. He's a little bit below average, but he hasn't played it a lot either. Maybe next year if he gets a chance to play every day it'll do wonders for him."
• Righthanded reliever Nick Wittgren, a ninth-round pick last year from Purdue, had an emergency appendectomy in November. He struck out 34 and walked four in 25 innings for short-season Jamestown.
• Outfielder Chris Coghlan, the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year, wrapped up a 24-game stint in the Dominican League in late November. He went 19-for-89 (.213) with 11 extra-base hits.