While deals for Zach Duke and Mark Melancon might have made it appear as though the price for relief pitching was coming down, the San Francisco Giants, in need of some help at the back end of the bullpen, have just paid a pretty high price to get the left-handed Brewers’ reliever Will Smith.
Here are the full terms.
- Will Smith (RHP)
For the Giants, pursuing a reliever made a lot of sense. They have some useful pieces there, surely: Santiago Casilla has been generally reliable at the the end of the bullpen, Derek Law has pitched well with more exposure, and Hunter Strickland has been solid at time. As a whole, however, the group hasn’t done a lot to add to the Giants’ chances of reaching the postseason this year.
The Giants’ 19.8% strikeout rate is barely ahead of the Colorado Rockies’ (19.7%). By ERA (3.76) and FIP (3.92), the Giants pen sits in the middle of the National League pack. By WAR, however, the team places ahead only of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the abomination the Cincinnati Reds have put together. By Win Probability Added (WPA) among NL relievers, Casilla (0.63, 37th), Strickland (0.53, 39th) and Law (0.52, 40) — who, again, represent the back-end of San Francisco’s bullpen — are well behind the game’s better pitchers. The rest of the relief corps is hovering around zero or worse. They’ve landed someone who should be able to bolster the bullpen significantly this year, and perhaps into future seasons.
In 2015, mostly in the capacity of setting up Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith was one of the best relievers in baseball, . He made 76 appearances, strinking out 35% of the batters he faced — and no NL reliever without a save had a higher WAR than Smith’s 1.4 mark. He moved into 2016 with the closer role his to lose, but lose it he did when he lost his balance while removing a shoe and twisting his right knee during spring training, an injury which required surgery. Smith hasn’t been as lights out this season, striking out 24% of batters against a 10% walk rate in 22 innings. Although his ERA and FIP have not stabilized due to a couple home runs, his strikeout rate in July has crossed the 30% threshold, providing some encouragement that Smith is on his way back.
Also providing some encouragement for Smith — who utilizes a four-seam fastball, slider, and curve — is the return of his velocity to a level that approaches his 2015 standard. Consider this graph, per Brooks Baseball.
If Smith can keep that velocity up and return to something close to his 2015 performance, he’s a very nice piece for the Giants through the end of the season, even if he makes just 20 appearances or so. The Giants’ spot on top of the NL West is far from secure following their recent slide. The result: their odds of winning the division have fallen behind the Dodgers’.
The Giants’ receipt of Smith isn’t likely to change those odds, but Smith isn’t just a rental. After achieving super-two status last season, Smith has three more seasons of arbitration-eligibility left to go. Given that he lacks any experience as a closer, that price should remain relatively cheap for the near future. As with most reliever deals in the recent past, however, the price paid to acquire wasn’t cheap.
For giving up their second-best reliever, the Brewers did very well — even if Smith does have several more years of control left. The team might have done better had Smith become the closer at some point and completely re-established his value, but the risk outweighs the reward in that situation given general reliever volatility, Smith’s early-season injury, and the potential risks/volatility associated with relief pitchers in general.
The headliner in this deal, Bickford, is highly rated — but he does have his share of detractors. On the plus side, Baseball America just put Bickford at number 50 in their mid-season prospect list, saying “The two-time first-round pick has dominated in high Class A, spotting his moving fastball and devastating-when-on slider.” The 21-year-old started the year in Low-A and has done well in six starts since his promotion to High-A after being selected in the first round by the Giants last year.
On the other side of the coin, Bickford was in the Futures Game this year, and didn’t impress either Keith Law or our own Eric Longenhagen.
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) July 11, 2016
Add to that the Giants’ reputation for knowing which prospects to keep and which prospects to trade away, and Bickford’s prospect ranking might suggest a bit too much optimism. San Francisco also possesses another pitching prospect on BA’s list, right-hander Tyler Beede, so it’s not as if the Giants only had one good pitching prospect with which to make a deal.
Of course, Bickford wasn’t the only return in the deal; the Brewers also received Andrew Susac. The 26-year-old is no longer a prospect after exceeding his rookie limits in 2015 as Buster Posey’s backup last year, but he did enter that season as a back-end top-100 prospect. Susac struggle with injuries earlier this year, as wrist and shoulder problems kept him out about a month. The righty catcher has decent power and held his own offensively for a catcher (91 wRC+) in limited time last year and is hitting a solid .265/.338/.451 with eight homers so far this season. With the Brewers moving on from Jonathan Lucroy at the catcher position, it’s possible the team found itself a replacement on the trade market.
For the Brewers, getting a a young pitcher with potential in Phil Bickford (even if he does have some questions) and potential replacement for Lucroy at catcher all for a reliever represent a good move for a rebuilding team. On the Giants’ side, trading decent young players for a reliever is probably not the best way to do business on a regular basis, but the Giants farm system is better than it has been, and the team does have control of Will Smith for multiple seasons — and it’s possible his value could even increase given health and opportunity.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.