A year after firing the first major shot of the offseason, the Atlanta Braves were at it again, announcing Thursday they had signed free-agent reliever Will Smith to a three-year, $39 million deal with a $13 million option for a fourth season.
The question that follows general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ latest November coup — which came nearly a year to the day that Atlanta inked Josh Donaldson — is what follows it?
Adding Smith, who had rejected a qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants, means the Braves are giving up their second-highest draft pick in 2020 along with $500,000 in international pool money. If they were to bring aboard any of the other unsigned players who received the $17.8 million QO, they would then have to forfeit their third-highest pick along with an additional $500,000.
That’s a list that includes Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, Marcell Ozuna, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Wheeler. Atlanta may not be in the orbit of the record-setting deal Cole is destined to get or be able to lure Rendon if Donaldson -- who also rejected a qualifying offer -- goes elsewhere, but there are a number of those free agents that do make sense.
At last year’s Winter Meetings, Anthopoulos explained that he wasn’t against signing a player who had a draft pick penalty attached, saying at the time, “We’re always mindful of the draft pick and the draft dollars associated with it. But if you’re looking at someone you’re going to sign for multi years, if you get someone with some control, you’re probably giving up a pretty good player if you’re getting someone with beyond one year of control.”
He reiterated that evaluation at this week’s GM Meetings, but went on to tell The Athletic’s David O’Brien, “If we find someone that we like, we’ll go after ‘em.”
The exact number pick that the Braves will be giving up for Smith will be determined by the competitive balance draft lottery, but a year ago it would have cost them the No. 60th selection when the likes of Dallas Keuchel (who they would eventually sign) and Craig Kimbrel were looking for homes after rejecting QOs. That was an upcoming draft in which they of course received an additional first-round selection after they were unable to sign 2018 first-rounder Carter Stewart.
Coupled with the John Coppolella-John Hart-era sanctions that prohibited Atlanta from signing any international player for more than $10,000 (and which is reduced by 50 percent for this next signing period) keeping a stranglehold on their only way to acquire impact developmental players made sense.
So what changed?
For one, you can look to the Braves’ approach in the 2019 draft. They went heavy on college players, which accounted for nine of their first 11 picks, headlined by Shea Langeliers, Braden Shewmake and Beau Philip, all of whom are among their current Top-30 prospects per MLB Pipeline.
In essence, it was a drafting strategy that allowed Anthopoulos and Co. to be more willing to take the hit of forfeiting a pick a year after they supplemented the system with advanced players to go with the high-school-heavy drafts that had come before them.
Jumping the line and signing Smith on the same day of the deadline to reject qualifying offers was shrewd and, in line with Anthopoulos’ penchant for stealth maneuvers, was completely unexpected.
Considering the Braves have been linked to Bumgarner (3.2 fWAR and 3.90 ERA in 34 starts in 2019) and have long coveted local product Wheeler (4.7 fWAR and 3.96 ERA over 31 outings) either would be a sensible addition to the staff. Then there’s Ozuna, who showed out in the postseason with a 1.335 OPS vs. the Braves and showed he’s more than comfortable hitting in SunTrust Park, and would be an intriguing addition in the outfield. Granted, lefty Mike Moustakas has been pinpointed as a fallback if Donaldson moves on, but Ozuna is the kind of right-handed bat that should be on their short list of targets.
Signing Smith was a stunner, but for what it would further cost to acquire any of those remaining players with draft compensation attached, is the Braves already out of the running? Would the front office be willing to make this winter hurt even more and strip away anther of those few chances to acquire young players?
Give Anthopoulos this much: its not even Thanksgiving and he’s already made this offseason that much more interesting.