The first big free agent domino of the offseason has fallen and it’s Will Smith signing a three-year deal worth up to $40 million with our Atlanta Braves, which could also turn into a four-year deal worth $52 million. I don’t think that anybody had the Braves being the team to basically kick off Hot Stove season and I especially don’t think that anybody believed that the Braves were going to be in the market for a high-leverage reliever such as Smith.
Yet, here we are. The Braves now have another reliable reliever for their bullpen and what was a weakness for most of the 2019 season now figures to be a strength for 2020. In a vacuum, this is a pretty good move and the Braves are doing exactly what people ask a playoff team to do in the wake of coming away empty-handed in the postseason — instead of resting on their laurels, they’ve gone out and strengthened the squad in a bid to be better in the next season.
However, this isn’t in a vacuum. We’re in a world where Jermaine Dupri is wrong and money is in fact a thing. With a good bullpen comes great financial responsibility. If Shane Greene is going to be pitching for Atlanta by the time Opening Day rolls around next year, he’s very likely going to receive a raise in pay — whether it’s via arbitration or if the Braves work out a contract with him before arbitration. Mark Melancon is going to make $14 million once again and the main reason why the Braves were able to get him is because they decided to take that money on.
Now that the Braves have him, Will Smith’s going to be on a $13 million AAV while he’s here. Considering that Greene’s arbitration projections have him possibly making $7 million-to-$9 million and the Braves decide to keep Melancon instead of trading him elsewhere, then the Braves are going to be putting a considerable amount of money into their bullpen for the next season alone.
The good news is that if the bullpen goes into 2020 as-is, then we can all rest easy about high-leverage innings and the days of being anxious about the Braves desperately clinging onto a small lead at the end of a game are probably over. Again, this would be an unequivocally good signing if we lived in a vacuum where money doesn’t make too much of a difference. However, the way that this signing will ultimately be judged will definitely hinge on what happens in the immediate future.
If the Braves are going to stick with their payroll being around the same level that it was last season, then this is going to look like a bit of a head-scratcher once April rolls around. While having a strong bullpen does give you plenty of peace of mind, placing a huge chunk of your payroll into a bullpen isn’t exactly the best way to go about building a contender. It’s the most volatile part of any baseball team and so if it goes belly-up, you don’t want to also be paying a significant amount of money for it in addition to the on-field consequences. It’s just not a wise choice to make at all.
So if Will Smith ends up being Atlanta’s prized acquisition of the offseason, then this offseason will go down as being both disappointing and confusing. He’s a good reliever on his own merit, but he’s also not the type of player that you center an offseason around unless you’ve got everything else crossed on your wish-list and you just need to do some window-dressing. So if the Braves stop here, it’ll be a huge disappointment.
However, if this is a sign that the Braves have gotten the okay to raise payroll and put more money into the team, then this is a pretty good signing. If the Braves are putting this much money into their bullpen and also doing so this early in the offseason, it’s pretty easy to make the logical leap into believe that the Braves are going to be doing some more stuff during the Hot Stove season. This could mean that they’re going to take advantage of the strong free agency market or they’re going to go after impact players on the trade market and also take on their salary like they did with Melancon.
The latter option could make this offseason really interesting for the Braves, since that would clearly mean that the Braves could end up actually being in a position to improve the squad via outside additions. We’ve been hearing about “financial flexibility” and the ability to “shop in any aisle” for a while now, but we haven’t really seen it in action. It would actually be fantastic if the Will Smith signing does turn out to be a sign of things to come, instead of just being Atlanta’s one splashy signing of the winter.
Either way, this is a move that logically should lead into bigger moves. You don’t make that much of a financial commitment to your bullpen unless you’re planning on adding to the rest of the team as well. The Braves may be able to afford signing Will Smith, but they can’t afford to let the rest of their offseason go by without any more additions. Otherwise, signing Will Smith will look a little funny in the limelight — even if it does serve as an on-paper improvement for the Braves.