Unless they are closers, blowing away hitters with upper-90 mph gas, minor league relievers and even swingmen rarely receive significant attention. After all, the best pitchers are always firmly anchored in the rotation, the experts say. The taller, the better.
As I evaluated the results posted by St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguers in June, one pitcher’s numbers continued to stand out. Rather than stop there, I kept looking for someone else – a bigger name, a higher draft pick, a more imposing figure, a ranked prospect, a full-time starter.
The effort was foolish for two reasons. First of all, this isn’t a top prospect list or an assessment of who will project best as a major leaguer years into the future. It should be about the best performance in the past month by any pitcher, given the role and level he has been assigned.
With that introduction, Quad Cities pitcher Justin Smith is the most deserving recipient of our third The Cardinal Nation Pitcher of the Month nod for 2010 as the top hurler in the system during June.
The 22-year-old right-hander, standing 6-foot-0 and weighing 190 pounds, has pitched much bigger. Selected in the 36th round of last June’s draft, Smith has served well in multiple roles for the playoff-bound River Bandits.
After an impressive spot start on June 3, Smith was asked to step into the piggyback rotation paired with Joe Kelly and had another start along with five relief stints. In his pair of starts, he yielded just one earned run in nine innings total.
In perhaps his most impressive stat, Smith fanned 27 and walked just four in 20 2/3 innings. Allowing three earned runs translates into a stellar 1.31 ERA during June. Opposing hitters managed just a .192 average against him.
On the season, the former Utah Valley University hurler has a 3-0 record with a 2.06 ERA and a 49:12 strikeout to walk ratio in 39 1/3 innings. Smith has gone 60 days since last giving up a home run, with the only long ball against him to date coming in his first game of the season, back on May 1.
Most interestingly, Smith did not make the Bandits out of spring training, instead spending the entire month of April at the Cardinals extended spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida. Called up to Quad Cities on May 1, Smith has been strong ever since.
With the Bandits scrapping the tandem starting arrangement for the second half, Smith has returned to the bullpen, where he plays an extremely important role.
Smith made his professional start in the Appalachian League last summer, fanning an impressive 37 in 24 1/3 innings while walking seven. He allowed ten earned runs for a 3.70 ERA. Smith appeared in seven games, including three starts.
Congratulations to Justin Smith, The Cardinal Nation Pitcher of the Month for June.
The man many are backing for the honor also received serious consideration. In the third month of his first season with the Memphis Redbirds, right-hander Brandon Dickson went 3-1 with a 2.03 ERA in five starts. He fanned 27 and walked just seven in 31 innings, but one number bothered me – his opposing batting average of .319. Dickson’s 38 hits allowed was actually his worst month this season in terms of hits per innings pitched.
After a rough April, former St. Louis reliever Josh Kinney has continued to improve with Memphis. The 31-year-old had an 11:2 strikeout to walk ratio and yielded just one earned run on six hits in eight June frames. He also picked up three saves.
Florida State League All-Star Ramon Delgado continues to excel for Palm Beach. The reliever allowed just two earned runs in 16 2/3 innings during the month. The right-hander fanned 18 and walked six.
Promoted to Palm Beach mid-month, April organizational Pitcher of the Month Scott Schneider adjusted to the FSL quickly, yielding one run over his first two starts, totaling 13 innings. His strikeout to walk ratio was just 4:5, however.
Smith’s teammate Aaron Terry has almost as strong of a case as he fanned 18 and walked just one in 10 1/3 June innings. Two earned runs were charged to the right-hander for a 1.74 ERA.
With short-season teams just starting up mid-month, their hurlers didn’t pitch enough to qualify, but Batavia’s Anthony Ferrara (1.80 in ten innings) and the Gulf Coast League Cardinals’ Javier Avendano (nine scoreless frames) are among those to watch.
Several players overseas, including Willy Paulino and rookie Carlos Matias in the Dominican Summer League along with Deimer Bier from the Venezuelan Summer League have gotten off to very good starts, as well.
Coming up: Check back here at The Cardinal Nation as the Cardinals organization should be making public their corresponding Pitcher and Player selections for June within the next day or two, as well.
Previous winners: Click on the highlighted links to be taken to earlier articles.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Brian pens a column each Wednesday at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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