Faced with choosing between a pitcher or a position player with the seventh selection in yesterday's amateur baseball draft, the Orioles got both by picking Cumberland University's Chris Smith, a left-hander who projects as a starter despite putting up impressive offensive numbers in college.
The Orioles used the 19th pick, obtained from the New York Yankees, on Louisiana State second baseman Mike Fontenot. They also grabbed switch-hitting infielder Bryan Bass of Seminole (Fla.) High with the 31st selection, additional compensation for losing Mike Mussina to the Yankees as a free agent.
Smith, 21, went 9-2 with seven complete games and a 2.13 ERA in 15 games at Cumberland, an NAIA school in Lebanon, Tenn. He allowed 58 hits, walked 34 and struck out 115 in 84 1/3 innings, and opponents batted .194 against him.
Ranked with Stanford's Mike Gosling as the best arms among college left-handers in the draft, Smith possesses a fastball that tops out at 94 mph and a developing curve and changeup.
"He's definitely a start- er," scouting director Tony DeMacio said. "He's gone deep into every game that we've seen him pitch, so we're not worrying about his durability. And I think he's a good sign. I don't think we're going to spend a whole lot of time getting it done. He wants to go out."
Smith echoed the sentiment. "Hopefully I can move up to the major leagues as fast as possible," he said yesterday. "I can't wait to get down there."
"He has a tremendous delivery with a good fastball and little effort," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, who has watched film of Smith. "He's also tough mentally. Five of our top people saw him, and all of them really liked him. That was good enough for me."
As a sophomore right fielder at Florida State, Smith batted .375 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs while helping the Seminoles into the College World Series. Named a second-team All-American, Smith wanted to focus more on pitching the next season, but was refused by coach Mike Martin, who also denied his request to be released from his scholarship.
Rather than sit out a year as required by NCAA rules on transfers, Smith transferred to Cumberland and batted .414 with 17 homers, 67 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. Speculation mounted that he could be drafted as an outfielder, but he'll be inserted into the rotation at Single-A Delmarva or Frederick.
"Maybe if he had stayed at Florida State, they'd be in the College World Series right now," said DeMacio, adding that he stuck with his philosophy of taking the best player available.
"We're real happy to get another left-hander in the system, and a great athlete on top of it. He's got good stuff. We see a lot of projection left in him, because he hasn't pitched a whole lot of innings."
The Orioles apparently will resist any temptations to play Smith in the field. "We're looking at him as a pitcher, but he's a great athlete," DeMacio said. "... They seem to pick up things a little quicker."
Given the chance to acquire a needed power hitter, the Orioles passed on Kent State outfielder/first baseman John VanBenschoten, who led the nation with 31 homers this season and batted .440 with 83 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. He went to the Pittsburgh Pirates with the eighth pick.
The Montreal Expos also skipped him at No. 6, though more for financial reasons, and took UCLA pitcher Josh Karp. VanBenschoten was ranked as the draft's seventh-best prospect by Baseball America, which also rated Karp 13th and Smith 17th.
"We spent a lot of time last night filtering through VanBenschoten and Smith," DeMacio said. "We just felt like, ceiling-wise, Smith was the guy to take."
Said Smith: "I didn't think I was going to be drafted that high, but ... hopefully I'll prove to you guys that I'm worthy of the seventh pick overall."
Smith joins Richard Stahl and Erik Bedard as left-handers taken by the Orioles in the past three drafts who eventually could settle into their rotation. The club began yesterday by signing another left-hander, Kurt Birkins, a draft-and-follow pick last year out of Pierce (Calif.) Junior College, and later took high school left-hander Rommie Lewis in the fourth round.
This isn't the first time Smith has been drafted as a pitcher. As a senior at Wantage (N.Y.) High School, he was chosen by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 11th round. Smith elected to attend Florida State, then gambled again by transferring from a high-profile university to tiny Cumberland.
"I wanted to go to school first and get my education in case this baseball thing doesn't go right," he said. "As of right now, it looks like left-handed pitching is getting me to the major leagues as fast as possible, and that's my main goal. It was definitely a gamble leaving Florida State, but it paid off."
DeMacio described Fontenot, a 5-foot-8 sophomore who batted .339 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs, as a "catalyst-type guy who knows how to play the game." He'll probably go to Delmarva or Frederick.