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Dodgers Lefty Julian Smith Opens Eyes In First Pro Outing

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Julian Smith (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Saturday morning was easily the highlight of Julian Smith’s professional career. You could see it in his eyes afterward, bursting with the pride of knowing he’d finally taken the mound and faced hitters in the iconic Dodger blue that so many greats have worn throughout the history of the sport.

His one inning in an instructional league game against the Rangers was his first outing of any kind as a professional, so it being the highlight of his career was almost by default. Still, that didn’t mute his excitement afterward.

“It was great to be out there,” he said. “It was more excitement being able to wear Dodger blue. It means a lot to the organization, to the program. It was just a great feeling being out there.”

Smith was taken by the Dodgers in the 15th round out of Catawba Valley (N.C.) JC and given a $152,000 bonus to sign. This came after he missed the 2017 season with Tommy John surgery, but then showed little rust after pitching again this past spring.

The skinny lefthander showed on Saturday why he caught the Dodgers’ eye. He pitched with a low-spin fastball with rising life that touched as high as 94 mph, and he backed it up with a downer curveball in the 79-80 mph range and a developing changeup in the low 80s. His long-levered frame is still projectable, and his delivery is fluid and athletic.

He didn’t play any other sports—at least on an organized basis—growing up, but he does have a background as a position player, which probably is part of the reason for his athleticism on the mound.

“I really idolized Willie Mays. My favorite number is 24. I like Josh Hamilton a lot,” Smith said, explaining who he modeled his game after growing up. “During my high school years, the pitching started to bear fruit, so when I got to college (I started pitching).”

Smith had planned to play at North Carolina State this coming spring, which would have made him the first CVCC alumnus to move on to play at a Power Five conference. But then the Dodgers, a franchise with a special significance for black players like Smith, came calling.

“The Dodgers mean so much to the baseball community. Going back to Jackie Robinson and 42, you know, if it wasn’t for him and the Dodgers, I wouldn’t be here today,” Smith said. “That’s extremely important to be able to wear the same jersey that he wore. It’s just a great organization altogether and L.A. just means a lot.”

Smith dealt with a bit of shoulder fatigue coming off his final college season, so he didn’t get to pitch at any level of the minor leagues. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t working to get better behind the scenes.

The team has helped Smith find ways to get stronger and increase his mobility and flexibility, and even in one outing he can already feel the benefits. 

“I feel a lot stronger when I’m out there and I feel more in control with my body,” he said. 

Smith’s goal coming out of Cox Mill HS in Concord, N.C. was to sign with a Division I college, preferably in the Southeastern or Atlantic Coast Conferences, but when his grades weren’t up those schools’ standards, he opted for Catawba Valley. 

“It was tough times, because every kid’s dream is to go to a big D-I school out there in the ACC or the SEC,” he said, “but when that wasn’t going to work out I wasn’t necessarily discouraged. I just knew what I had to do, and coach (Paul) Rozzelle gave me an opportunity, so I took it.”

In his final season with the Red Hawks, after the Tommy John surgery, Smith dazzled. He went 8-2, 2.51 and struck out 130 hitters in 79 innings and became the first player in school history to hear his name called in the draft. 

Smith says that he recalls scouts taking an interest in him as a freshman, but he really took notice of the radar guns popping back up last year, when he’d see 10-15 per game behind the backstop.

That’s when he knew things were getting real.

“Ever since I was kid, this has been my dream,” he said. “I was like, ‘I want to play major league baseball, this is what I want to do.’ Whether that was in the field or that was on the mound, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Now, with a pro appearance—albeit one that won’t show up outside of the Dodgers’ internal databases—under his belt, Smith is a small step closer toward that goal.

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After the Rangers got done playing against the Dodgers on Saturday, more of their prospects went under the lights at Surprise Stadium for an exhibition game against Arizona State. They began the evening with three of their top picks from the 2018 draft, including first-rounder Cole Winn, second-rounder Owen White and fourth-rounder Mason Englert.

Winn, the 15th overall pick in the draft, was the most impressive. He pitched 1.1 innings to start the game before reaching his pitch limit and handing the ball to reliever Joshua Javier. Before he left, Winn showed the promise that led the Rangers to take him with their first-round choice. 

The righthander operated with a low-90s fastball that touched 94 mph, and he backed it up with his signature curveball. The pitch, thrown in the mid-70s, showed tight spin and fierce 11-to-5 bite. He showed the ability to drop it in for a strike or bury it for a chase when necessary. His changeup, thrown in the mid-80s, showed potential as well, with excellent fade away from lefties when thrown properly.

He got a little too quick in his delivery at times and left the ball up and out over the plate, which led to his early hook.

White opened the third inning and showed above-average stuff from a violent delivery. He was extremely aggressive with his low-90s fastball, which also touched 94 mph, and threw the pitch with extreme conviction.

His 78-80 mph curveball, which had slurve-type break, showed potential as well. He also threw a handful of impressive changeups in the low 80s. He appeared to slow his arm slightly on both of his offspeed pitches, however. 

Englert, the team’s fourth-rounder, was consistently 93-94 mph with his fastball. His delivery was extremely violent and contained a pause in the middle and a head whack at the end. He backed up his fastball with a mid-70s curveball and a upper-70s changeup. All of his offspeeds show potential and could be above-average with refinement. 

Arizona State righthander Alec Marsh did what he could to open some eyes as well. He utilized a low-90s fastball with cut life, a slurvy breaking ball in the low 80s and a changeup in the same range to strike out eight of the nine hitters he faced.

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