Joe Smith joins Twins with 1,000 games in sight

March 20th, 2022

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Joe Smith made his Major League debut on April 1, 2007, he was one of five pitchers to take the mound for the New York Mets. The first of those pitchers was Tom Glavine; the last was Billy Wagner.

Fifteen years later, Smith is still chugging along. Now the Majors' active leader in games played and two days shy of his 38th birthday, the veteran sidewinder officially joined his eighth MLB club on Sunday, arriving in camp on a one-year, $2.5 million deal to fortify the Twins' bullpen and continue his mission to reach a baseball milestone.

"How about 1,000 games?" Smith said. "I pride myself on this -- whenever I'm available, I try to take the ball. I can't believe I'm going to be 38 in two days and I'm still throwing a ball. It's a lot of fun. I love it."

He's got 168 more appearances to get to that point, and so far, he has no reason to believe he'll stop before then. Though he posted a career-worst 4.99 ERA across 50 appearances for the Astros and Mariners last season, he was his usual effective self following his midseason trade to Seattle, pitching to a 2.00 ERA with 17 strikeouts and four walks in 18 innings.

Even so, he owns a career 3.09 ERA and had not exceeded a 3.83 mark in each of the previous 13 seasons, twirling consistent season after consistent season through stints with the Mets, Cleveland, Angels, Cubs, Blue Jays and Astros.

He attributes his Jekyll-and-Hyde 2021 campaign to the mental adjustment back to the competitive environment after he opted out of the shortened '20 season due to his mother's illness and eventual death. Once the Astros moved on from him, he took the trade as a competitive springboard and finished strong as part of a Mariners club that made a surprising playoff push.

It wasn't fun getting traded away from a World Series contender like the Astros, he acknowledges. He is excited by the talent in the Twins' clubhouse as he gets away from the coasts and closer to home in the Midwest.

"It'll be fun getting in here, watching guys play, finding out what we got and go from there. If we can keep Byron [Buxton] healthy, he's going to be fun to watch on an everyday basis. We definitely got talent. We'll see what happens."

Smith joins a bullpen that will also feature Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Jorge Alcala and Caleb Thielbar. The remainder of the bullpen picture remains to be sorted out. Manager Rocco Baldelli indicated that he's proceeding as if his entire Opening Day bullpen is already in the organization, which could span candidates like Jharel Cotton, Ralph Garza Jr., Griffin Jax, Jovani Moran, Cody Stashak and Lewis Thorpe.

Eight hundred and thirty-two appearances into his career, Smith will still be trusted to be among the best of them.

"He's here because he can pitch, and he can get guys out," Baldelli said. "And he's going to pitch some leverage innings for us. He's going to go out there, and when we're winning close ballgames, he's going to pitch."

Ober has rotation spot to begin season
The Twins are still in search of a finishing piece to their starting rotation, but whatever happens likely won't push right-hander Bailey Ober out of the picture. Baldelli said after Ober's spring debut on Saturday that the 26-year-old is expected to be in his Opening Day rotation, coming off a season in which he posted a 4.19 ERA in 20 starts as a rookie.

Ober joins Sonny Gray, Dylan Bundy and Joe Ryan as part of that mix, with the fifth spot likely to be determined by whatever addition occurs by Opening Day.

"I think Bailey's put himself in a really good spot to be in our rotation," Baldelli said. "We're planning on him being in our rotation. He's gotten himself ready to be in our rotation. I think he needs to just stay on track and pitch well, and we'll see him out there."

Dobnak shut down; likely out of Opening Day picture
Right-hander  is likely out of the picture for the Opening Day roster, Baldelli said, due to continued discomfort in his right middle finger, a saga that began with a torn fingernail that evolved into a strain in the finger, sending him to the injured list last June. He briefly returned in September before the issue again sidelined him -- and, evidently, still hasn't resolved itself.

Dobnak had been throwing at the start of camp before the Twins shut him down.

"I think we're resetting right now in a way and allowing his finger to rest," Baldelli said.