Numbers cutting two ways for Smith

Ex-Oriole hitting .404, but one of many outfielders

March 29, 2000|By Scott Brown | Scott Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VIERA, Fla. -- Mark Smith has a receding hairline, a slight paunch and 510 big-league at-bats. Yet at last week's end, the former Orioles first-round draft pick was sixth in the National League in hitting during the exhibition season.

Smith is as unlikely a presence in the Florida Marlins' clubhouse as he is among baseball's hottest hitters. The Marlins' quarters are heavily populated by youngsters who are more likely to reach for the comics than the business section of the newspaper.

And with the emphasis on youth here, Smith, a 29-year-old journeyman outfielder, is creating a dilemma for Florida manager John Boles.

"You'd have to be an ignoramus not to see that this guy could help us," Boles said. Indeed, the nonroster invitee has hit better than .500 for a good portion of the spring. His current average is .404.

One thing working in his favor with final cuts looming: Boles said he still has "scars" from last year's 6-22 start in which lack of runs was the main culprit. One thing working against Smith: the numbers. Boles has earmarked 12 of the 25 roster spots for pitchers. That makes it unlikely that the second-year manager will keep more than five outfielders, and four of those slots are claimed.

"Every spring I'm in the same situation," said Smith, who was taken ninth overall by the Orioles in the 1991 amateur draft. "All I can do is make it a tough decision for them, and I think I have done that."

Smith, who played in Japan last season, attracted interest from several major-league teams in the off-season. He signed with the low-budget Marlins because of his experience with the Orioles. After ascending quickly in Baltimore's minor-league system, Smith played parts of 1995 and 1996 with the Orioles. He said he never got a chance to prove himself as an everyday player because of Baltimore's propensity for signing big-name free agents.

"I got into the case where I was ready to play in the big leagues, but they always went after a Bobby Bonilla or some other high-priced free agent," said Smith, who played two seasons in Pittsburgh after leaving Baltimore. "Once you're 25, 26 and haven't been an everyday player, you're kind of labeled a bench player, and that's what happened to me."

Smith spent last season refining his stroke with the Yakult Swallows in Japan.

"Most pitchers over there do throw 90," said Smith, "and [former major-leaguers] are being treated like you are a Mark McGwire or a Ken Griffey Jr., so they're pitching you very, very carefully. You have to develop an eye at the plate."

Smith hit 22 home runs and drove in 55 runs in 293 at-bats. However, he said he didn't play much in the second half of the season for reasons that aren't clear to him.

Miffed, he decided to return to the majors. Enter the Marlins.

"We were looking for the type of individual that could serve as protection or could challenge for a job in spring training," Florida general manager David Dombrowski said. "He's opened up a lot of eyes."

Even if he's opened them wide enough to win a roster spot, the drill will be one that Smith knows well: pinch hit and occasionally give left fielder Cliff Floyd or right fielder Mark Kotsay the night off.

"In my heart and in my mind I know I could have been an everyday player," Smith said. "I played with guys that are now everyday players in the big leagues, and I put up better numbers than them in the minor leagues. It's frustrating. I'd like to play every day, but I know my role here. I'm happy to come off the bench a couple of times a week and help the team win."

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