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Young Orioles trade acquisition Kevin Smith tops one projection systems’ forecast for their best pitcher in 2021

This time last year, FanGraphs’ annual ZIPS projections had a unique name atop their list of Orioles pitchers for the coming season in terms of who would be most productive — mercurial left-hander Tanner Scott.

That proved to be a largely correct forecast as Scott had his most consistent season as a big leaguer. Now, for the second year in a row, the pitcher who is projected to be worth most for the Orioles in that forecast is a left-hander who is a bit out of left field: Kevin Smith.

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Smith, one of two players acquired at last year’s trade deadline in a deal with the New York Mets that sent Miguel Castro the other way, spent a little time at the Orioles’ alternate site after the trade but isn’t on their 40-man roster.

These ZIPS projections don’t take into account playing time, but only give a representation of a player’s past performance and how comparable players have performed. Smith, at 1.3 wins above replacement (WAR), is just ahead of All-Star left-hander John Means on the list.

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And more likely than not, Smith won’t even make the big leagues this year.

It is not meant as a guarantee, but if nothing else, Smith being looked at so favorably by a respected model is a good sign for the deal last year. Smith was a well-regarded prospect with the Mets, and upon his trade to the Orioles, seemed to join a cluster of high-minors left-handers in Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther in terms of his promise. Those two pitchers, who were each added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster this offseason, have used deception and command to carve up minor league hitters up to the Double-A level in 2019 despite not possessing premium velocity on their pitches.

Smith, similarly, isn’t a hard-thrower. But the Orioles saw at least a plus slider in his time at the alternate site in Bowie last summer, and believe his use of both a four-seam and two-seam fastball gives him more weapons to compete with hitters on both sides of the plate. He also gained some insight into how his pitches work and which ones are best in certain situations during his short time with the Orioles’ minor league pitching coaches.

None of that, of course, goes into a projection system. The system looks at his high strikeout rate as a starter in the low minors, combined with a low walk rate and good contact profile.

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For Smith to appear at Camden Yards this year, he’ll have to both impress and pass a lot of pitchers on the depth chart. With Means and Alex Cobb atop the rotation and rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer already in place behind them, plus Jorge López and Bruce Zimmermann also getting starts at the end of the season, there are already several options. Add in possible Rule 5 rotation candidates Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, plus Michael Baumann, Alexander Wells and Lowther also on the roster, and there are a lot of pitchers ahead of him.

Still, the fact that the forecasts like Smith so much — even ahead of schedule — indicates that the Castro trade may prove fruitful for the Orioles in the longer term.

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