Josh Smith grew up about 15 minutes away from Louisiana State University. He watched nearly every LSU baseball game on television and occasional attended a contest at Alex Box Stadium growing up.
LSU was where Smith wanted to continue his baseball career after playing at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Detroit Tigers selected Smith in the 38th round of the 2016 MLB draft. He would’ve gone much higher had he not made it clear that his intentions were to attend LSU.
“It means a little more for me because I grew up here,” Smith said. “I take pride in LSU.”
Smith is going through the draft process for a second time in his career. The 5-foot-10, 172-pound junior shortstop missed most of last year with an injury but has performed well this season to position himself to be an early-round pick in June’s draft.
“Last year kind of helped me a little bit with taking the pressure off me with the draft,” Smith said. “That’s the ultimate goal is to play professional baseball.
“Last year was tough for me. I kind of took baseball for granted before that. Going out and having fun has just been really big for me this season.”
As a freshman in 2017, Smith played third base for the Tigers, who finished as the runner-up at the College World Series. The left-handed hitter posted a .281 average with five home runs and 48 RBIs in 242 at-bats.
He slid over to shortstop last year but three games into the season, a stress reaction to a lumbar vertebra, which sent shooting pains through his lower back, sidelined him until late April. He returned to LSU’s lineup but only played three games before sitting out the remainder of the season rehabilitating.
He didn’t return to baseball activities until the fall. He said he didn’t feel comfortable until the end of fall practice.
Smith is healthy and producing at an elite level this spring. In 152 at-bats, Smith is hitting .349 with six home runs, 22 RBIs and 12 stolen bases through 40 games. He has struck out 32 times while drawing 21 walks.
“Last year was pretty tough for me with not really having baseball for the first time in my life,” Smith said. “This year, I am just going out there and having fun with playing the game again.”
Smith believes his biggest strength is his defense. He is a smooth defender with above-average arm strength.
He’s committed seven errors for a .953 fielding percentage this season.
“I take a lot of pride in my defense,” Smith said. “I take ground balls daily. I really focus on that because that’s one of the parts of the game that you can control. I love hitting, but hitting is hit or miss.”
The left-handed hitter has a solid approach at the plate and is more of a gap-to-gap hitter. He does have some deceptive power, especially for his size.
He hopes to show more consistency at the plate over the remaining portion of the season, he said.
“I also want to develop more speed and just to try to hit with power to both sides of the field,” Smith said.
The Tigers entered the season with high expectations. They were the top-ranked team, as they returned key contributors back and added the top incoming freshmen class. They have struggled at times this season, though, and have a 26-15 record.
Sitting out most of last season changed Smith’s perspective on the game. It caused him to remain in the moment and focus on the team’s success. He’s determined to lead LSU deep into postseason play in what could be his final season of college baseball.
“I know on any given day that that can be taken away from you,” Smith said. “I just love getting out on the field and working and competing every day.”
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for four years. He’s interviewed 133 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.