Up against a deadline to either accept or refuse San Francisco’s qualifying offer, free agent reliever Will Smith signed a three-year, $40 million pact with the Atlanta Braves. Smith’s deal with Atlanta will pay him $13 million in each of the next three seasons, with the Braves retaining a club option for either a fourth season at $13 million or a $1 million buyout.
Now two seasons into his return from Tommy John surgery, Smith’s 2.66 ERA and 2.71 FIP to along with 3.2 WAR in 118 and a third innings in 2018-2019 firmly established him as the best free agent reliever available this winter. While on paper Aroldis Chapman electing to stay with the Yankees could have established a better negotiating environment for Smith, teams just aren’t in love with closers the way they were 10 or 15 years ago. Being in the next tier of relievers down from his fellow left-hander, and with the loss of a draft pick attached, Smith was unlikely to do much better; his deal exceeds Kiley McDaniel’s three year and $36 million estimate as part of our Top 50 Free Agents list, as well as the crowd’s median projection of three years and $30 million.
The Braves entered 2019 as a serious contender, but one with a bullpen problem. In our 2019 Positional Power Rankings, Atlanta’s pen ranked 18th in baseball. The team’s relief issues never reached the same level of notoriety as those of their division rivals in DC, but Atlanta’s corps was 20th in baseball in WAR over the first half of the season, prompting them to trade prospects Joey Wentz and Kolby Allard for Shane Greene and Chris Martin, respectively. Also acquired at the deadline was another member of the Giants’ bullpen, Mark Melancon.
With Greene, Melancon, and Luke Jackson all returning in 2020, the addition of Smith gives the Braves a deeper group than when they started the 2019 season. It would make sense for Smith to get first dibs on save opportunities, but if fellow lefty Sean Newcomb is given a chance to start in 2020, the team may very well decide they’re better served leaving Smith in a more flexible role that allows him to be used tactically against left-handed hitters.
The loss of Smith, when added to the plethora of relievers traded in July, leaves the Giants with a rather thin bullpen. However, that team has 99 more pressing problems than holding late-inning leads to worry about. We’ll have more on the Smith signing up on the site soon.
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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.
Bold move so early. Good for you Braves fans out there. Your front office is loading up for a true title run. Atlanta looks to be an exciting team. The NL East could be a monster in 2020
The Braves generally have a few future closer level arms in their upper minors/bullpen at any given time and have lately specifically made a point of overloading with as many pitchers as they can find. Because of that, to me this is a weird way to spend 13M x 3. RP should be an easy place to save (no pun intended) and especially for the Braves.
I somewhat agree with your point, but it’s not always as easy as just using those extra pitching prospects as relievers, or more specifically a closer. Considering how bad the bullpen choked this past July and at various other times during the season, it looks as if Anthopolous is interested in fortifying the bullpen to where he won’t have to deal with it later (like mid-season). Of course injures and underwhelming performance could impact that type of thinking in a hurry. But the horribleness of that ‘pen last season — for as short a time it was terrible — appears to have driven the Braves to want to do much better in 2020. I don’t blame him, as losses due to crapy bullpen play is probably the most frustrating way to lose.
And like Dan mentioned, Newcomb will most likely get a shot in the rotation in the Spring. As bad as he was as a starter in ’19, he was a damn good reliever for the Braves.
True, but the game values shut-down lefty specialists in the vein of Andrew Miller (of old), Josh Hader, etc. Those that can close or set-up, but definitely excel in whatever capacity. No, Smith isn’t on the same tier, but a repeat of anywhere his 2019 would be a welcomed sight to a ‘pen that had very few consistent IPs most of the season. Now they can give more opportunities to other guys without having to rely so much on them (i.e. Luke Jackson accepting a setup role and not feel the need to close, Webb, etc.) Considering how shallow the RP market is this year, I see the need to pounce early, knowing there are still guys left in other areas (SP, 3B, C) if you don’t get Plan A.