Considering general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ fetish for handing out one-year deals and his aversion to handing out multi-year contracts that are not insanely team-friendly like the Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña, Jr. deals, it was pretty surprising to see him give reliever Will Smith a three-year, $39 million deal before the 2020 season. In a vacuum, that’s a gamble that some teams definitely would have taken, but it was a very atypical move for the Anthopoulos-led Braves.
Had Smith looked like the guy he was in San Francisco, there would have been fewer questions as to whether he was worth the investment. For the Giants in 2018 and 2019, Smith had back to back seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA including an insane 2018 season that saw him post a 2.07 FIP with a strikeout rate of 12.06 K/9 and just 0.51 home runs allowed per nine innings pitched. Keep that last number in mind for later.
Unfortunately, the 2020 season was a rocky one for Smith. For starters, he became infected with COVID-19 just before the season restarted, which caused him to miss the preseason build-up activities. He was not cleared for organized activities until the very end of July. Once he did return, the numbers were... not great, as he posted a 4.50 ERA and 7.38 FIP. The numbers were particularly bad in August (which was the first full month of his season) where his ERA was approaching six and he was giving up a home run nearly every outing. Smith also pitched six postseason innings, which were somewhat better — but he did again get stung by the longball in a Gemini Man situation.
It is unclear as to how much of Smith’s struggles were due to his COVID-19 infection and subsequent layoff. While he may not have had the severe physical symptoms that Freddie Freeman did when he was sick, having one’s training and build-up routine disrupted combined with just a very bizarre situation for professional baseball players in 2020 could have easily lead to a weird down season. That and, keep in mind, we’re talking about a small sample however you slice it — reliever seasons are already small samples, but an illness-delayed season that was already shortened to a couple of months for a reliever has barely any innings to speak of. One thing that is absolutely going to have to change, though, is Smith’s home run rate: he gave up 3.94 homers per nine innings pitched, which essentially tripled his previous career high.
So what does this mean for Smith in 2021? We have no idea. Using 2020 as anything predictive, especially for relievers who are already a volatile commodity, doesn’t seem particularly fair, as the circumstances surrounding that season were a very unique dumpster fire. There are a lot of things about Smith’s 2020 profile that are extreme outliers, so giving him the benefit of the doubt (at least somewhat) seems like the correct course.
The Braves better be crossing their fingers that the real Will Smith returns because the bullpen is very likely to take a step back this year. While the core group of Smith, Tyler Matzek, Chris Martin, and A.J. Minter is a strong one, the Braves don’t have the luxury of the insane depth they did last year (especially since Mark Melancon and Shane Greene are no longer on the team) and will need Smith to be a major contributor. If he bounces back, that goes a long way to making up for the loss of Melancon and Greene. If he doesn’t... well, things could get interesting for the bullpen especially if there are any other problems.
As a result, keep an eye on what the bullpen looks like coming out of Spring Training. In addition to being in need of some more/better righties, we could see the Braves take some chances on some high-ceiling arms coming out of camp to see if they can catch lightning in a bottle again like they did with Matzek last season. As it stands now, they are really counting on Will Smith to be his former self and as we saw last season, that isn’t a given.