A lot of work goes into building a winning baseball team. Often, by the time the major league club is winning, the people that were working behind the scenes unnoticed that helped accomplish that task are long gone. They were either given their pink slip, or promoted/demoted to another position. Often they move on to another organization. This is the life of professional baseball scouts. They are the faceless men that work in the shadows, traveling from city to city, doing the grunt work that they aren’t likely to get recognized for. Their careers depends on the ability to find future baseball players in the swing or arm of a high school or college kid. If their selections work out, they become directors. If they don’t, they become unemployed.
Greg Smith held the position of scouting director for the Tigers from 1997-2004. While that era of baseball isn’t exactly fondly remembered by Tigers fans, that is in large part due to the ineptitude of GM Randy Smith. Greg Smith however, should be fondly remembered for Tigers fans, because before he walked out the door to move on to the Pittsburgh organization, he made perhaps the best draft pick in Tigers history.
And it almost didn’t happen.
The year was 2004, and the Tigers selected Justin Verlander in the first round of the MLB draft. You know, the MVP and Cy Young Award winning Justin Verlander that is dominating games to the point where it almost looks easy. He was selected 2nd overall that year, and with the benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t seem like much credit should be given to Smith at all for the selection. And that is where people would be wrong.
You see, even though Justin Verlander was blessed with a tremendous arm at Old Dominion, he wasn’t much of a pitcher. His inconsistency, wildness, and immaturity as a pitcher led to some mediocre college stats. Given the other players available in the 2004 draft, Verlander wasn’t a shoe-in to be picked in the top 5, let alone 2nd in the draft. The draft contained notable pitchers like Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, Phillip Humber and Homer Bailey. Stephen Drew was in the 2004 draft as well, and a lot of people wanted the Tigers to select him. But this is where scouting comes in, and a scouts’ belief in taking his guy.
Smith as the scouting director didn’t necessarily have to fight for Verlander, but he believed he was the right guy and got him. After the Tigers selected Verlander, the negotiations were long and drawn out, coming down to the last few days before a deal got done near the deadline. At one point, the negotiations got so tenuous, Smith had declared that the Tigers were done making offers, and going to move on. Verlander’s dad reached out at that point, and things finally got done a short time after that.
It wasn’t long after Verlander signed with the Tigers that David Dombrowski hired David Chadd to the Scouting Director position, and put Smith in the role of a special assignment scout. Smith just drafted what would be one of the best pitchers in the game, and essentially got a demotion. A couple years later, Smith landed in the Pittsburgh organization where he is now their Scouting Director.
I can’t fault Dombrowski for making the change, Smith was the old GM’s selection, and he felt comfortable with Chadd. Plus, nobody knew the type of pitcher Verlander would turn out to be, and the Tigers were only a year removed from one of the most terrible seasons in baseball history. The 2003 season was due in large part because of the players from the Randy Smith/Greg Smith era. However, looking at Greg Smith’s record, I don’t think he was as bad as people might think.
Obviously he deserves a ton of credit for drafting an MVP and Cy Young award winner in Verlander, but he also found other players as well. Smith drafted Curtis Granderson and Joel Zumaya in 2002, a draft that produced 6 major leaguers. Smith’s regime was responsible for finding Jair Jurrjens, Omar Infante, Fernando Rodney and Ramon Santiago. He drafted Ryan Raburn in 2001 as well. Overall, over 40 players that were drafted or signed and developed in Smith’s tenure with the Tigers have played in the big leagues. That’s not bad at all. And even though a lot of them were low impact players, his one big time hit is what we should all be thankful for. Curtis Granderson wasn’t a bad hit either.
Now, Smith did have his share of misses, and a lot of his #1 picks turned out terrible. The fact of the matter is, bad luck with injuries had as much to do with that as anything. Kenny Baugh and Kyle Sleeth come to mind right away as players that were considered good selections, who had injuries derail them. But that is part of the scouting world as well, and excuses don’t really work when owners spend the money without any bang for their buck. It comes with the territory. Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that someone (Smith) Tigers fans don’t think about at this point has had a great impact on the success of today’s team.
So here it goes.
Greg Smith, thank you for selecting Justin Verlander.