As Mets' longest-tenured arm, Smith ready for '24

Reliever discusses adjusting to New York, his time with the club, breaking 'model curse'

March 3rd, 2024

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The first time set foot in New York City was in June 2018, just before his big league debut. He was 24 years old at the time, hailing from a tiny Texas municipality about an hour southwest of Dallas. The Mets put Smith up at a Westin hotel that could house roughly as many people as the town he grew up in. The next day, he tried to navigate from Manhattan to Citi Field via public transportation.

“I was wearing my freaking Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots walking to the subway, and people were looking at me like, ‘What the hell is this guy doing?’” Smith recalled, laughing. “I was lost.”

Now, Smith says, “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not a New Yorker, but I understand how it works.” At 30 years old, he is -- believe it or not -- the longest-tenured member of the Mets’ pitching staff, entering his final year of team control. (Among players expected to make the Opening Day roster, only outfielder Brandon Nimmo has been around longer.) Although Smith’s impending free agency may not be as high-profile as that of teammate Pete Alonso, he faces a similar situation: the prospect of departing the only big league organization he’s known.

“It’s definitely gone by quick,” Smith said.

When the Mets acquired Smith for Lucas Duda at the 2017 Trade Deadline, he was a different person and pitcher than he is today. Smith still recalls Tampa Bay’s Double-A manager, Brady Williams, calling him into the office a few days before the Deadline to break the news. Smith, who had only just arrived in Alabama following an early season trade from the Tigers to the Rays, thought Williams was playing a joke on him.

Williams wasn’t. Less than a year later, Smith was in the big leagues with the Mets.

“I’ve loved my time in the organization ever since, honestly,” he said.

Along the way, both highlights and lowlights have marked Smith’s tenure. A successful 2018 debut gave way to Tommy John surgery the following spring and a rocky return midway through in the pandemic season. Since 2021, however, Smith has been one of the Mets’ most reliable pitchers. He developed a slider (using Clayton Kershaw’s as a guide) and stopped relying as much on his curveball. Smith developed a tight relationship with pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, who joined the club in 2020. He recorded four outs during the Mets’ combined no-hitter in 2022 and delivered a scoreless inning during Wild Card Game 3 later that year. Over the past three seasons, no Mets pitcher has made more appearances than he has.

It’s the type of profile that should earn Smith a respectable contract somewhere next offseason -- the only question is where. Much like Alonso, his most lucrative path forward involves going out and thriving in 2024. That will involve sharpening up his command, which was an issue last summer. He’d like to throw his curveball and changeup more often, too -- goals he will begin pursuing when he makes his Grapefruit League debut on Tuesday.

And if this is his last season in New York, Smith plans to enjoy it. In recent years, Smith has earned some notoriety for always seeming to show up when a group of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models arrives to throw out ceremonial first pitches at Citi Field. But here’s the thing: In 2022, Smith held a 1.69 ERA before catching a pitch from the models (and subsequently chatting one up on Twitter). From that point forward, his ERA was 4.20. Last year, Smith had a 1.88 ERA before catching a first pitch. He allowed a run that night and posted a 4.93 mark the rest of the way.

Yet Smith, who swears he never volunteers for the swimsuit model assignment -- “I guess I’m one of the few single guys on the team, so they just assume I want to do it” -- isn’t going to back down from the responsibility.

“I’ll prove the curse wrong this year,” he said, laughing. “It can’t happen three years in a row, so we’ll prove it wrong.”

Smith paused, then added: “Maybe this year, they’ll send some single ones.”