Smith wants to prove caliber in Rockies' outfield
Despite substandard 2010, starting position available for taking
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies outfielder Seth Smith carries himself in a quiet, almost formal manner. Manager Jim Tracy has joked that Smith doesn't address him with a nickname, like "Skip" or "Trace."
"He'll say, 'Hi, Jim,'" Tracy would say before chuckling.
Don't mistake that for a lack of passion, especially not now. Smith hit .246 last season with a .314 on-base percentage. Not only was it a dramatic drop from the .293 average he posted with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs in 387 plate appearances the season before, but he never even had a Minor League season with numbers as low as last season, when he didn't come close to making the most of an opportunity to establish himself as an everyday player.
So Smith arrived at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Saturday, still his calm self, but with a new fire.
"I've never burned more than I do now to be an everyday player," Smith said. "It's time for me to step up. It's time for the opportunity. It's all there. It's just whether I'm going to take it or not. Right now, first day of Spring Training, I'm going to take it. I'm ready to go."
In 2009, Smith, who went back and forth between pinch-hitting and outfield duty, turned hot late. He hit .296 with three home runs in August and .284 with four homers in September and early October, becoming a key reason the Rockies stayed in the National League West race and eventually qualified for the playoffs.
Going into last season, the plan was for Smith to receive more playing time and show he could hit left-handed pitching over the course of a full season. However, Smith fell into habits of letting good pitches sail by early in counts and pressing thereafter. He finished the year with a .154 average against lefties and his overall downturn was the reason he received 398 plate appearances -- just seven more than the previous year, when he was considered a part-time player.
Brad Hawpe, now with the Padres, was the starting right fielder. When he was injured early, as he struggled later, and, finally, after the Rockies released him, Smith received an increasing number of starts.
The Rockies changed hitting coaches this offseason, from Don Baylor, now with the D-backs, to Carney Lansford. One reason was that Smith was one of several players who functioned well at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2007, when Lansford was the hitting coach there. Called up late, Smith finished that season so effectively off the bench that he remained on the postseason roster through the World Series.
Lansford paid a personal call to Smith at his home in Jackson, Miss., in December.
"It was good to see him again," Smith said. "I hadn't seen him in awhile. I was excited about him coming in. It was a quick two days, a lot of talking.
"There was no overhaul or re-doing of anything. It was getting back to the basics, what got me to where I am and improving on that -- letting the ball go deeper, trying to hit the ball up the middle and the other way and not trying to do too much. It's just trying to put a good swing on a good ball."
Lansford said Smith is capable of not only hitting 20-plus home runs but challenging for the league lead in doubles if he returns to using the entire field, instead of becoming pull-conscious as he was last year. However, the swing wasn't the problem. The mental approach needed adjusting.
"More than anything else, what I talked to him about was the importance of wanting to be an everyday player and not letting somebody else go out there and take his job," Lansford said. "He kind of fell into the trap of being satisfied with being a pinch-hitter. The biggest thing I wanted him to know was he should be an everyday player. We need him to be an everyday player."
The Rockies drove that point home during the offseason by planning on Smith as a starter in the outfield. The Rockies have Ryan Spilborghs, who will get some at-bats, and signed multi-position player Ty Wigginton. But if Smith plays well, most of Wigginton's at-bats will be in the infield and Spilborghs will be a spot-player and pinch-hitter. If Smith is hitting lefties, he doesn't necessarily have to relinquish starts to Spilborghs.
Tracy said last season could be chalked up to Smith learning how to be a Major League starter.
"Going out there on a day-in, day-out basis is somewhat of a new thing," Tracy said. "There's an adjustment period to that. We're still headed in that direction. That's not an overnight project."
Smith doesn't mind pushing for more.
In 2009, he compiled a .378 on-base percentage and showed the ability to handle the bat. Such a performance would fit nicely in the No. 2 spot in the order.
"I'm not shooting for a spot, but the better I play, the more elite of a batting order position I'll get," Smith said. "If I go out there and do what I've done in the past and I'm capable of doing, I don't see why that wouldn't happen."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.