MADISON TOWNSHIP — Josh Smith’s professional baseball odyssey has taken him from the desert Southwest to the Atlantic seaboard — and delivered him one step closer to the big leagues.
A 2015 Madison graduate, Smith was selected by the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Barnstormers with the 15th pick in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball draft late last month.
The Atlantic League is one of four independent leagues designated as Major League Baseball partner leagues and is at the top of the food chain among the seven independent pro leagues. The 10 Atlantic League franchises are scattered across Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Smith said. “I’ll be playing against former Triple A and Double A players. A lot of the guys in this league have major league experience, too.”
A hard-throwing left-handed pitcher, Smith was selected by the Barnstormers after taking part in the two-day Atlantic League Professional Showcase in Viera, Florida.
The private camp was conducted by Atlantic League officials in conjunction with Prospect Dugout, a baseball recruiting service and database, and drew more than 200 participants. Only 19 players were selected in the Atlantic League draft.
“Josh is a lefty that has a good arm and was around the plate,” Lancaster manager Ross Peeples said at the time of Smith’s signing. “We are excited to bring him into camp and give him an opportunity to see what he can do.”
While franchises in the Atlantic League aren’t affiliated with any MLB teams, the league is stocked largely with players who were at one time in the minor league system. Atlantic League players who sign with a big league franchise typically report to the parent club’s Double A or Triple A affiliate.
“There are a couple who have gone to the majors straight from this league,” Smith said. “They are very good players.”
That Smith is working his way up the professional baseball ladder is a testament to his perseverance. He was not highly recruited coming out of Madison despite helping the Rams win back-to-back Ohio Cardinal Conference championships in 2014 and 2015.
The 2015 Rams won a Division I district championship and reached the regional tournament for the first time since 2002. Madison hasn’t been back to the Sweet 16 since.
“He pitched for us, but at the time he wasn’t our No. 1 pitcher,” former Madison coach and current athletic director Doug Rickert said. “He showed flashes at times.
“He could go in there and strike out the side, but he had some control issues.”
Ashland University coach John Schaly took a flyer on Smith, signing him as a pitcher and position player. Smith redshirted in the spring of 2016.
“His first year here, we had him as a hitter because he had power from the left side. He ended up redshirting that first year,” said Schaly, a 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee. “We were working with him as a hitter and we told him if he increases his velocity we can go back to taking a look at pitching.
“That’s what he did. He had a good summer pitching-wise and when he came back that following year, that’s when we made him a pitcher.”
Smith played sparingly in 2017 and 2018 before coming into his own during AU’s historic 2019 campaign. In 27 appearances, Smith was 2-1 with a 3.86 earned run average and 35 strikeouts in 39.2 innings pitched as the Eagles went 48-15 and reached the NCAA Division II College World Series.
“He got our biggest win in the regional against Bellarmine out of Kentucky,” Schaly said. “He came in relief and ended up going six or seven innings. It was his longest outing of the year.”
Not long after the College World Series, Smith began to experience shoulder pain. He tried to rest and rehab the injury but when the 2020 season was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith opted for surgery.
“It was the rotator cuff and the labrum. I rehabbed it all year, but I wasn’t as recovered as I wanted to be,” Smith said. “After the surgery, it kind of bothered me in my last year at AU.”
Smith was 2-5 with a 5.34 ERA in 32 innings pitched in his final year of eligibility at Ashland in the spring of 2021. Shortly after the season ended, he headed to New Mexico to play for the Roswell Invaders and former AU teammate Lance Myers in the low-level independent Pecos League.
“It’s one of the lowest levels of independent ball. You get paid almost nothing, maybe $40 a week,” Smith said. “We had to carpool to games seven hours away. It was a grind, but I got paid to play baseball, so it was a fun time.
“It’s a league that you don’t want to stay in long. You just want to get your foot in the door and try to get signed somewhere else.”
Smith made the most of his summer in the desert. He was 3-3 with 64 strikeouts in 54 innings of work with the Invaders. What’s more, the velocity on his fastball returned to pre-injury levels.
“In 2019 I topped out at 96,” Smith said. “I’ve been building back up. I’m up to 95 right now.”
It was in the Pecos League that Smith first learned of the Atlantic League Professional Showcase. The event, which was held at the USSSA Space Coast Complex in Viera, Florida, is scheduled to coincide with Major League Baseball spring training so that recently-released players can audition for other MLB franchises, as well as Atlantic League teams.
Team officials liked Smith’s size — he’s 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds — as well as his live left arm.
“That’s what they’re looking for,” Smith said. “They told me I will work mostly in relief to start out.”
Rickert was astounded by Smith’s post-high school maturation.
“In high school Josh was thin. He was 6-foot-3 and probably weighed 155 pounds,” Rickert said. “I was pretty impressed with how his body had developed and how much bigger he got.”
That wasn’t all that impressed Rickert.
“When I went over to AU to watch a baseball game one day, I saw Josh working in the bullpen and throwing by himself. He didn’t even have a catcher,” Rickert said. “He would throw and go pick up balls and go back and throw again. I was pretty impressed with his work ethic.”
At 25 years old, Smith knows the clock is ticking. The average age of a big league rookie is about 24 years old.
“Most players get to their prime at 29. I’m getting to be that age,” Smith said. “There’s a process to getting up to the Major Leagues. You’ve got to keep moving up.”
Life in the Atlantic League can be cutthroat. Rosters are constantly in flux as players are traded or released.
“It’s a business now. I’ve got to perform every outing,” Smith said. “I think each team has a 29-man roster and it drops to 25 for the playoffs. They usually carry about 15 pitchers.”
The good news is the pay scale in the Atlantic League is a little more reasonable. The Atlantic League is the highest-paying league in independent baseball with team payrolls reportedly between $225,000 and $275,000. Veteran players can earn up to $3,000 per month for the six-month season, which begins in mid-April and runs through mid-September.
“We get paid $1,500 (per month) starting out. That is the entry level for players there,” Smith said. “It’s basically a livable salary now.”
If things work out, Smith won’t be in the Atlantic League for long.
“My goal is to play Major League Baseball,” he said. “This is a stepping stone.”
As for Rickert, he hopes to see his former player in the big leagues some day soon.
“It’s really amazing what he has done and he has done so much of this on his own,” Rickert said. “He’s turned into a heck of a pitcher and we wish him all the luck in the world.”
Schaly won’t be surprised if Smith gets an opportunity in The Show.
“I know he’s going to keep getting better, because he works so hard,” Schaly said. “Anything is possible.”