Youthful and athletic, Kevin Smith, the sixth highest ranked prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, knows that he has a lot to do to get to the major leagues, but he surely won’t shy away from a little bit of a challenge. Jays Journal sat down with Kevin shortly after the conclusion of his season to talk his career, his strengths, and his goals for the future.
Hayden Godfrey: Kevin, thank you so much for joining me. I want to start from the beginning. What was your first thought, your first reaction, when you were drafted by this organization?
Kevin Smith: It really was just a dream come true, I’d been working for that goal for so long and if you keep it in the front of your mind, you kind of lose track of what you have to do day-to-day to get better, so I knew it was always a goal ever since high school, but you really got to let that go and really get lost in the process, working out and getting better.
So when that day finally came, I was so caught up in getting better every day that you really had to sit back and enjoy it. That was really something that I dreamed about. It was really fun to be with the family, and everything, but once that day was over I really wanted to get down to Dunedin and be with the guys and get going.
HG: Kevin, it was your 2016 sophomore year at Maryland that in a lot of ways enabled you to gain such a high draft position. The accolades are almost endless: Cape Cod League All-Star, Baseball America’s top prospect in the Cape Cod League, I could go on… What did playing under [Maryland head coach] John Szefc do for your confidence, and what did that year of baseball teach you as a player?
KS: I think it was more my freshman year when I went in there and I got to play with nine draft picks that year and so, we were really close with that group and I still have some close friends that are in the bigs right now. I think that year really showed me what it took to be the best and how hard these guys are working and the kind of guys I need to keep up with. So, I think freshman year carrying into sophomore year, it was all about the mindset. [Coach Szefc] always told us that he wants all of us to be pro baseball players and he was hoping that we wanted to the same. He always taught us what it meant to be professional, not just on the field but off the field and I think that’s a big thing that’ll stick with us.
HG: You were excellent in your first pro season with the Bluefield Blue Jays – 25 doubles, .271 average, eight dingers in 61 games. Your team last year was also pretty darn good, you played alongside Ryan Noda and Chavez Young. How is that, being an up-and-coming player yourself, sharing a clubhouse with these other exciting young players?
KS: We had a great clubhouse, we had a lot of fun in Bluefield and the atmosphere there was one of the best that I could’ve been put in, just to be around those guys day in and day out, and kinda working our way through our first year, it was a lot of fun. If it wasn’t a good of a year as we had, who knows where we’d be at right now, but I think that was a great place to start and it was really fun to play with those guys.
HG: This year, between Lansing and Dunedin, you slashed an absurd .302/.358/.528 with 25 home runs, 93 RBI and 29 stolen bases. Shortstop or not, 25 home runs and 29 steals is a versatile and valuable line for any young ballplayer. Not that your first pro season was subpar by any stretch, but what changed for you, whether in the offseason or at the beginning of the season this year, that allowed you to get to that next level?
KS: I don’t really think anything changed, I just think I stayed on course and trusted the process and just tried to get better every day. I’ve been working on stuff for a few years and obviously you’re not going to see overnight success, and I think that’s where people go wrong in this game, they think they can work on one drill or change one thought process and all the sudden they’re the next Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez. It takes years and years of practice, there’s still stuff that I want to work on.
I don’t think it was really one thing I think it was just continuing to work at stuff. I really dove in with [Lugnuts hitting coach] Matt Young, I was hitting for 20-30 minutes a day in the cage, trying to get my swing and my approach where it needs to be. I wouldn’t say that I’m settled, I think I could’ve had a better year, so I’m excited to go into this offseason and continue to get better and hopefully the numbers keep improving themselves.
HG: That work ethic is incredibly evident. You were the Player of the Week several times in the Florida State League, you were named a Midseason All-Star by Baseball America, and the one that stands out to me the most is that you were named to MLB Pipeline’s Prospect Second Team of the year. What does that mean to you, to be such a young player and to be recognized alongside the best prospects in baseball?
KS: I think it just means that I’ve got to keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m where I want to be at, I probably have the highest goals for myself. I think all it means is that the stuff I was working on put me on the right path and the guys that I talk to every day and in the Blue Jays organization have helped me this year. It was cool to get recognized but at the same time, if you start looking at that stuff you kind of get in your own way, it’s important to just keep working and hopefully at this time next year you’re looking up and you’re at an even higher level than you were.
HG: The front office in Toronto talks to reporters and fans a lot about creating a competitive environment in the minor leagues, so that when young guys like yourself come to Toronto, you’re already ingrained in this mindset of being competitive. In your opinion, is that successfully being done at the lower minor leagues?
KS: I think we’ve got a great group of guys here that want to win, whether it’s getting better with the bat or stealing a base, throwing someone out at home plate, win a game, win the season, win the championship – that’s all stuff that’s being done in the minors.
I think it starts with coaches, integrating that culture, and wanting to be there and wanting to win, but I think it also kind of plays in the people that are drafted. We have a lot of guys in the minor leagues right now who are hungry, who want to make that next step and get to the big leagues as fast as they can. Winning is part of that. I would definitely say that’s being done in the minor leagues, and it’s fun to be a part of.
Stay tuned for the second part of the interview, that explores Kevin’s 2018 season, his personalized jersey for Players’ Weekend and more. You can also follow Kevin on Twitter at @KJS_4.