With 'breath of fresh air,' Smeltzer vying for roster spot

March 5th, 2023

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Adversity isn't a new concept for Devin Smeltzer. The 27-year-old lefty who signed a Minor League contract with the Marlins this offseason knows what it means to fight an uphill battle. He's a cancer survivor, after all. At the age of 9, he was diagnosed with pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma (bladder cancer), as a tumor had formed against his bladder that was connected to his prostate.

Now, Smeltzer hopes to make the Opening Day roster for a team that could use his services in long relief, matchup situations, or if injuries arise, a starting role.

Last season with the Twins, Smeltzer spent time at the Major League and Triple-A levels. He pitched to the tune of a 3.71 ERA in 15 appearances (12 starts) across 70 1/3 innings with the big league club.

Smeltzer made his second appearance of Spring Training on Sunday in the Marlins' 4-1 loss to the Red Sox, going 2 2/3 innings and allowing four earned runs on four hits and striking out two. Smeltzer was taken out of the game after walking in a run with two outs on a 50-50 pitch. He attacked hitters with an arsenal of offspeed breaking balls -- including a sweeping slider and looping curve -- mixing in a cutter and changeup.

"Today was just about building up," said Smeltzer. "I'm a big believer that if you don't get tired in that last inning, you're not building yourself up. You're looking to push and go through a few struggles and tired legs, but I felt good and thought I executed pitches and manipulated the ball. It was a good day."

Having been drafted by the Padres in 2014, opting to go to college, and taken again in the fifth round of the ‘16 Draft by the Dodgers, Smeltzer made his first Opening Day roster with the Twins in ‘20 after being traded to the organization in mid-’18 and appeared in just seven games.

An injury-plagued 2021 resulted in just one MLB appearance in '21. After being sent to Triple-A in October of '22, he decided to venture into free agency.

"I've never felt like I've had a job," Smeltzer said of his mindset this year at camp. "I come in ready, and I'm going to handle what I can and force their hand a little bit. It's been a breath of fresh air so far with the Marlins. It's a great group of guys."

Going through such trauma at quite a young age has helped Smeltzer not get too high or too low when it comes to his career. Some things are bigger than the game.

"Baseball is a game of failure, obviously. You're going to have more downs than ups," Smeltzer said. "The goal is to not ride that roller coaster and just stay on a steady incline. Going through what I went through as a kid, it put life into perspective. We all go through tough times. I do my best to remember where I came from and snap out of it, and realize I'm playing a kid's game for a living."

Don't let his talk fool you, though, he's got intensity in spades. He said his father nicknamed him "hammerhead" growing up because of his love and passion for the outdoors and nautical life.

"I'm just trying to have as much fun as I can. I've got a lot of fire," Smeltzer said. "I want to do my best to give the team the best opportunity to win -- I personally think that's in a starting role. But I'm going to do what I can to make the club."

Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said he’s enjoyed watching the competitive nature of Smeltzer early on.

“Every time out, he competes,” Schumaker said. “He throws all of his pitches for strikes, gives our defense a chance because balls are put in play on the ground a lot, which is great, and he doesn't walk anybody. I was happy with his outing today and so far, he’s been putting in work the right way.”

As for what role Smeltzer could play with the organization this year, be it with the big league club or in the Minors, Schumaker said: “There’s competition in a lot of different spots, and the bullpen is one of them. Every guy that’s in camp right now has a chance to make this roster, and he’s absolutely one of them.”