The Milwaukee Brewers continue to seek upper-level pitching depth in advance of their attempt to defend their National League Central title in 2019, and this past week their search resulted in a minor league agreement with right-hander Burch Smith. The former top prospect will turn 29 shortly after the start of the regular season, though his unique and idiosyncratic career path may portend to more upside than one might expect from a pitcher of a similar age and MLB track record.
Smith began his professional career in 2011, when he slipped to the 14th round in the MLB draft due to perceived signability issues. The Padres selected him and promised him a well above-slot $250K bonus to convince him to sign on the dotted line, and that began his meteoric rise through the minor leagues. Smith debuted by making two appearances that summer for San Diego’s rookie affiliate in the AZL, then was promoted all the way to Class A-Advanced Lake Elsinore for his first full season in 2012. The bugaboo about Smith coming into the draft was that he could suffer from lapses in control, but he yielded only 1.89 BB/9 in 128.2 innings that season while striking out 137 total batters on his way to a 3.85 ERA in 26 starts.
San Diego pushed Smith up to AA San Antonio to begin the 2013 season, and Smith absolutely torched the Texas League during a six-start stint. Across 31.1 innings, Burch allowed only 17 hits, six walks, and one homer while punching out 37 batters. The 1.15 ERA he posted was eye-catching enough to earn him a promotion to AAA Tuscon, where the success continued. In 12 starts and 61 innings at the highest level of the minors, Smith posted a 3.39 ERA with 65 whiffs against only 17 free passes.
Smith debuted in the big leagues as a 23 year old, and in his first MLB start against the Tampa Bay Rays, he lasted one inning while coughing up five hits, two walks, and six runs. He wound up making a total of 10 appearances, including seven starts, for San Diego during his debut season in 2013. While he did miss plenty of bats, Burch’s demonstrated ability to limit walks at the minor league level did not carry over to The Show. He ended the year with an ugly 6.44 ERA in 36.1 innings, striking out 46 batters but issuing 21 walks (5.20 BB/9). He was taken deep a whopping nine times in his 10 outings for a rate of 2.23 HR/9.
Still, it was easy to be optimistic about Smith’s future as he entered the 2014 season at just 24 years old and already with some big league time under his belt. He reported back to AAA to begin the year, but after two only two starts, disaster struck. Smith blew out his elbow and would eventually require Tommy John surgery to repair his damaged ulnar collateral ligament. These days, we tend to think of TJS as an almost routine procedure and recovery, but that was not the case for Burch Smith. He missed all of the rest of 2014, and didn’t throw a competitive pitch during the 2015 or 2016 seasons. During that time, he was dealt from San Diego to Tampa Bay as part of the three-team deal that eventually spawned the “Trea Turner rule.”
After going more than three years without appearing in a game at any level, Smith finally returned to the mound with the Rays’ Gulf Coast League affiliate on June 26th, 2017. He would ultimately pitch 56.1 innings in 13 appearances (12 starts) between the GCL, Class A-Advanced, and AAA, posting a nifty 2.40 ERA along with a 56:24 K/BB ratio in his first action in quite awhile. Smith was able to parlay that success into a spot in the Arizona Fall League, where he made six starts for the Surprise Saguaros. Smith’s 3.98 ERA and 11 walks in 20.1 innings didn’t jump off the page, but he wowed scouts by hitting 100 MPH with his fastball on a few occasions. That generated enough interest for Smith to get taken by the Mets with the sixth pick in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, who then immediately dealt his rights to Kansas City.
The rebuilding Royals kept Burch in the big leagues for the entire 2018 season, deploying him as a multi-inning swingman out of their bullpen for most of the year. While he was able to stay healthy enough to pitch for the entire season, the results were a bit ugly as Smith continued to try and knock off some of the rust from his three-year layoff. He was called upon 38 times, including for six starts, and logged an even 78.0 innings for Kansas City. He was only able to fashion an ERA of 6.92, though, struggling once again with his command (4.62 BB/9) as well as the long ball (1.73 HR/9). Burch did strike out 77 batters, but estimators like FIP- (129) and DRA- (140) agreed that his overall effectiveness was well below the big league average. After the season, the Royals outrighted Smith off their 40 man roster and allowed him to exit the organization via minor league free agency.
When he’s right, the big bodied Smith - 6’4” and 225 lbs - is working from a high three-quarters arm slot and coming after batters with a three-pitch mix of four-seam fastball, curveball, and changeup. His plus fastball averaged 93.7 MPH last season and touched as high as 99 with the Royals. It is the pitch he relies on most often, throwing it more than 60% of the time. His curveball and changeup have both received strong scouting grades, though neither pitch was particularly effective in 2018. His sweeping curve, graded at a 55 by Fangraphs and a 50 by MLB.com (on the 20-80 scouting scale) averaged 78.4 MPH, but batters were regularly able to square the pitch up and rarely swung-and-missed at it in 2018. The changeup was his best pitch in terms of whiff rate and batting average against, and the 81.6 MPH offering received grades of 55 from MLB.com and 55/60 from Fangraphs.
The Brewers surely have some ideas as to how to improve Burch Smith and get the most out of his impressive raw stuff, perhaps starting with increasing his changeup usage while decreasing his amount of curves. He would probably benefit from pitching “up” in the strike zone more often with his blazing fastball, too, something he didn’t do consistently in Kansas City. And, perhaps there’s some hope that his control will continue to improve as he gets further away from his elbow injury, though it may never be as strong as it was during his early days in the minor leagues. There isn’t a ton of mileage on his arm as the right-handed hurler has logged fewer than 500 innings at all levels in the eight seasons since he became a professional.
Regardless of whatever eventually works out, it’s easy to see the upside in signing a lottery ticket like Burch Smith to a no-risk minor league deal with a chance to show his wares in big league camp. He could eventually serve as bullpen depth for our Menomonee Valley Nine, or perhaps he’ll get the chance to stretch back out for a regular rotation role in San Antonio and begin the year as a backup “initial out-getter.” We’ll get our first opportunity to see how he looks when pitchers and catchers report to Brewers Fields of Phoenix in less than a month.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus