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Josh Smoker looks to build on promising rookie campaign

The lefty is competing for a spot in the Mets’ pen after posting big strikeout numbers in 2016.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Josh Smoker showed some exciting potential after making his major league debut last year. Despite being victimized by the long ball, the lefty posted eye-popping strikeout numbers in 15.1 innings out of the Mets’ pen.

The Nationals drafted Smoker in the first round of the 2007 draft. After a series of arm injuries temporarily derailed his career, the Nationals released him in 2013, and he then played independent ball before signing with the Mets in April 2015.

Smoker was effective with the Mets’ Single- and Double-A affiliates that season. In 49.0 innings, the southpaw had a 3.12 ERA with 11.00 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, and 0.2 HR/9. The Mets promoted him to Triple-A in 2016, and while his ERA jumped to 4.11, his peripherals were just as good (12.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9) in 57.0 innings of work.

Smoker’s strong performance in the minors led to his big league promotion on August 19 of last year. In his six weeks with the Mets, Smoker showed flashes of what made him such an exciting prospect a decade ago. First and foremost was his propensity to strike batters out, which he did 25 times in 15.1 innings. That translates to an impressive 14.7 K/9. At the same time, Smoker limited his walks to just 2.3 BB/9. The lefty accomplished this with a strong arsenal of pitches that included a fastball averaging 95 mph that he threw about 65% of the time, along with a slider (81 mph average, 25% usage) and a split-change (83 mph average, 10% usage).

Smoker’s Achilles’s heel in 2016 was the home run ball, as the four homers he surrendered resulted in a rate of 2.35 HR/9. He was also the victim of a very high .387 BABIP. The upside to those numbers is that they’re much higher than those he produced in the minors and could simply be aberrations that correct themselves this year. The downside is that they could have been caused by leaving too many hittable pitches over the plate, and emblematic of the lack of command that he exhibited in the minors, where he posted 4.4 BB/9. All in all, Smoker’s mixed bag of peripherals resulted in a basically league-average 4.26 FIP (103 FIP-). His poor results on balls in play, however, produced a high 4.70 ERA (118 ERA-).

Smoker’s combination of raw talent and improving command makes him a very intriguing relief option in 2017. Assuming that the Mets start the year with two left-handed relievers—and that Jerry Blevins has a secure spot in the pen—Smoker is likely competing with Josh Edgin, Sean Gilmartin, and Tom Gorzelanny for that second spot. Whether or not he makes the Opening Day roster, Smoker should get the opportunity this year to improve upon his promising debut effort in the majors.