Spring Training Notebooks

Spring Training Notebook: An intriguing under-the-radar player in Cubs camp

5 months agoTony Andracki

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — In recent weeks, the Cubs acquired a pair of players who check a lot of the same boxes: 28 years old, left-handed slugger who can play first base and the outfield, has earned NL MVP votes in the recent past but also endured some inconsistent seasons.

One of those players, of course, is Cody Bellinger.

The other: Dominic Smith, who signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs that included a non-roster invite to big-league camp.

Bellinger obviously has a much longer track record of success in the big leagues and his return was a huge boost for the Cubs lineup. But Smith comes with his own impressive pedigree and has flown under the radar in recent seasons.

Smith was the 11th overall pick by the Mets in 2013 and was ranked as one of the top prospects in the game prior to the 2014, 2016 and 2017 campaigns (topping out at No. 51 on MLB’s list in 2016).

He made his MLB debut as a 22-year-old in 2017 and after a couple of uneven years, he found some success in 2019 — .282/.355/.525 slash line (.881 OPS) with 11 homers and 25 RBI in 197 plate appearances.

The following season (2020), Smith enjoyed a true breakout, posting an impressive .316/.377/.616 slash line (.993 OPS) in the shortened campaign and finished 13th in NL MVP voting that season.

Smith has struggled to find consistency since then with a .666 OPS over the last 3 seasons. He became a free agent after the 2022 campaign, signed with the Nationals and then was designated for assignment this past offseason.

He found his way to the Cubs, where there was some familiarity.

“We’ve been talking with the Cubs for the last few years,” Smith said. “I almost got traded here a couple years ago. Last year in the same process, almost decided to come here. Obviously chose the Nationals.

“I think the whole culture here — just the winning atmosphere and then at the same token, opportunity to go compete for a job. I know that this team is a couple pieces away from making that real run and push that they want to make. I feel like I can come in and I can help the team get over that hump.”

Smith appreciates that the Cubs have been interested in him for years and he talked to some of his friends and former teammates about what it is like to play in Chicago.

Smith played with Marcus Stroman in New York and with Carl Edwards Jr. last year in Washington. And he’s played against Bellinger and Dansby Swanson for years.

“When you come in as a visiting player, you feel the energy,” he said. “You see it. You see the crowd out there cheering for their team. They’re never booing their guys. They’re just ragging on the away team.”

Smith also feels like a career resurgence could be in the works.

In New York, he was blocked by one of the best first basemen in the game — Pete Alonso. The Mets got creative in trying to find ways to get Smith into the lineup alongside Alonso, so they tried things out in left field.

He hasn’t played the outfield since 2021 now but the Cubs have potential openings at both first base and DH and they have been in search of another left-handed bat — preferably with some pop.

Bellinger’s return alleviates some of that pressure to have more left-handed balance in the lineup and rookie Michael Busch will receive some runway to prove he belongs in the big leagues at first base.

But Smith is an intriguing option that could give the Cubs something to think about this spring. He’s still in his prime, he has some pop but is a solid overall hitter with a strikeout rate at or below league average for most of his career.

And he feels like he has a big factor working in his favor: He’s fully healthy for the first time since 2017.

Smith underwent surgery in early January after he broke the hamate bone in his right wrist. The timeline is normally 6-8 weeks, so Monday marked his first Cactus League action with the Cubs — he doubled and singled in 3 plate appearances.

He was taking some swings when the injury occurred in January but he never felt a snap or a pop that would indicate a broken bone.

“When I saw the hand specialist and he walked me through the MRI and showed me how displaced it was, he mentioned that it’s a possibility it could have been fractured for a long time before now,” Smith said. “I’ve been dealing with this wrist pain since 2017.”

Smith has been playing through the pain for most of his big-league career. He said at times, it was difficult for him to even take batting practice so he saved his swings for in-game.

He believes the wrist injury affected his production.

“I couldn’t swing as hard as I wanted to because it hurt so bad,” Smith said. “My whole swing was all just messed up because of that. I’m very optimistic about being able to hit without that discomfort and if I’m able to do that, I could get back to myself.”

He underwent tests each year for the wrist but the hamate bone is so small and nothing was ever picked up on an X-ray or MRI. It wasn’t until he did a CT scan this past winter that the injury was finally determined.

“It’s a little unfortunate,” he said. “I wish I could’ve figured this out a few years ago and things could be a lot different. But it is what it is. I’m here now.”

Smith said he does not feel any pain in his wrist when he swings and is optimistic that he will be able to show what he can do this spring.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the final three weeks of Spring Training develop. Beyond Smith, the Cubs have several other intriguing veteran position players in camp — catcher Jorge Alfaro, outfielder David Peralta and first baseman Garrett Cooper.

Manager Craig Counsell has gone out of his way several times to bring up the non-roster veterans the Cubs have in camp and how they could change the calculus on the Opening Day group.

The Cubs also have a jam-packed 40-man roster full of players they don’t want to part with, so it would be complicated to add any of the non-roster players to the 40-man roster.

Then there’s the fact that the Cubs have invested in Busch at first base, trading a promising pitcher (Jackson Ferris) to the Dodgers in that January deal. The Cubs are planning to use Patrick Wisdom as part of a platoon with Busch at first base, playing against left-handed pitchers.

Plus Bellinger can play first and slugging prospect Matt Mervis is still in the mix.

But if Smith hits, he can force the issue and provide another left-handed option for Counsell.


More sim game fun

For the second straight day, the Cubs held a simulated game on the backfields at the team’s complex.

Veteran pitcher Drew Smyly tossed 3 innings facing Wisdom and a collection of Cubs minor leaguers. Relievers Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. also pitched an inning apiece.

Wisdom had a solid performance in the sim game, crushing a homer nearly to the highway off Smyly in his 1st at-bat. He added an RBI double to left-center off Merryweather and an RBI single to right-center off Smyly in the 3rd inning.

“Felt good,” Wisdom said. “Got the juices flowing a little bit. Felt calm and relaxed, which is a good thing.”

Injury updates

Wisdom was participating in the sim game because he has been slowed by a quad injury over the last few days. He was originally scheduled to play in Tuesday night’s game against the Royals but his quad wasn’t rebounding the way he or the team hoped, so they backed off a bit.

There wasn’t one particular moment where the quad popped up; Wisdom said it felt gradually tighter as he was going through a workout. He doesn’t feel it when swinging or fielding grounders but running is still a bit of an issue.

“I did some running the other day and it wasn’t where we hoped it would be but it was still better than where it was,” Wisdom said. “Counsell was just like, ‘let’s not push it.’ I was like, ‘I can give you 75%.’ But why? It’s [early March]. Just taking it slow.”

Wisdom is unsure of next steps but he has zero concern that he will be ready for Opening Day.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” he said. “And I feel good in the box, which I think is the biggest thing.”

Caleb Kilian left Tuesday night’s game against the Royals with an apparent injury. After he gave up a single to start the 3rd inning, catcher Joe Hudson went out to the mound and promptly signaled to the Cubs dugout.

Following a brief conversation, Kilian departed with team trainer PJ Mainville.

Next up

The Cubs welcome the Angels to Sloan Park Wednesday afternoon with Justin Steele on the mound. Catch all the action on Marquee Sports Network beginning at 2 p.m.

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