One day after walking off the mound complaining of cramping in his right forearm, Smith underwent an MRI exam that revealed a strain of the flexor mass muscle, according to manager John Farrell. And while the injury could have been worse, Smith will begin the season on the disabled list with no timetable for when he might resume throwing.
"There's no throwing schedule in place yet," Farrell said after the Red Sox lost 3-0 to the Miami Marlins in an exhibition game. "We've got to get a few days of treatment just to see how he comes through that. This is a little bit of a setback, obviously."
At this point, Boston management thinks Smith will heal through rest and rehabilitation rather than surgery.
When the Red Sox acquired Smith in a December trade that sent lefty Wade Miley to the Seattle Mariners, they had visions of using him in conjunction with fellow setup relievers Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa and new closer Craig Kimbrel as a powerful late-inning combination. Last season Smith posted a 2.31 ERA, 13 saves and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 70 appearances for Seattle.
Smith's absence for at least the season's first few weeks likely creates a spot for hard-throwing right-hander Matt Barnes, who has recorded nine strikeouts in 8⅓ scoreless innings this spring. Kimbrel, Uehara and Tazawa are locks for a bullpen that also likely will include lefties Robbie Ross Jr. and Tommy Layne and the runner-up in the fifth-starter competition between knuckleballer Steven Wright and left-hander Roenis Elias.
Farrell said the Red Sox are "for sure" counting on Smith to play a big role once he gets healthy. But the 26-year-old right-hander also throws from an unconventional three-quarter arm angle that some scouts have suggested could eventually lead to arm issues. He has pitched from that arm slot since college at Texas State and said last week that he doesn't think it will have a negative effect.
"For the most part, it feels natural. It's not forced," Smith said last week. "If I tried to throw over the top, that would be forced. I'm just running with it. It feels good, healthy -- knock on wood. But for the most part, I feel real comfortable with it."
Said Farrell: "We want to ensure that when we build him back up we're taking it at an appropriate pace."