There’s a decent chance that the Yankees will have a couple of voids to fill in the bullpen for 2020. For one, we’ll find out about Aroldis Chapman’s opt out decision very soon. Additionally, though he only made one appearance this season, Dellin Betances is a free agent. So, the Yankees could be players for relievers in free agency even though that may not be the smartest way to fill out its roster.
One option is Will Smith, who the Yankees were interested in as the trade deadline approached a few months ago.
Smith, a 30 year-old southpaw, was first drafted by the Rays in the 40th round out of high school in 2007 but didn’t sign. After one year at Gulf Coast Community College in Florida, the Angels picked Smith in the 7th round of the 2008 draft. This time, the lefty decided to go pro, though he wouldn’t last long in the Angels organization.
In the first of three trades of his career, the Angels dealt Smith and Sean O’Sullivan to the Royals for Alberto Callaspo in the summer of 2010. Smith debuted in the majors with Kansas City a couple of years later as a starter, though became a reliever for good by 2013.
Following the 2013 season, the Royals shipped Smith to Milwaukee in exchange for Nori Aoki. He spent two and a half seasons in the Brewers’ bullpen before he was traded once again, this time to San Francisco at the 2016 trade deadline. Now a free agent for the first time, the lefty reliever can finally choose his next destination.
Smith’s career as a starter didn’t last long. He made 16 starts for the Royals in 2012 (5.32 ERA/4.66 FIP) and one more start the next season, but that was it. His fastball velocity ticked up in the ‘pen, and the rest was history. Once he joined the Brew Crew, his career took off. His fastball went from 91.3 MPH as a rookie to 94.1 MPH as a reliever in Milwaukee.
In his first two years with the Brewers, Smith logged 129 innings and recorded impressive marks in strikeout rate (32.2 percent), ERA (3.21), and FIP (2.87). By FIP’s standards, Smith was a top-25 reliever in all of baseball during that period. But Smith wasn’t the same in 2016 as he didn’t make his first appearance until early June (more on that in a moment). Eventually, Milwaukee decided to sell and shipped him to the Bay Area.
Now, Smith wasn’t terrible in ’16 by any means. In fact, he pitched very well for the Giants down the stretch. After a 3.68 ERA/4.28 FIP and 23.9 percent strikeout rate in 22 innings with Milwaukee, he rebounded post-trade. The southpaw was better than ever with the Giants and had a 2.95 ERA/1.78 FIP and 34.7 percent strikeout rate after the move. All that occurred even as his fastball velocity dropped by nearly 1.5 MPH.
Smith missed all of 2017 with Tommy John Surgery, which perhaps was no surprise in retrospect after diminished velocity the year prior. When he returned mid-2018, however, he didn’t miss a beat. And not only did he return in stride, but he also was better than ever. Since he rejoined the Giants that summer, Smith has been arguably one of the ten best relievers in the majors. Here’s where he ranks in a few categories since returning from surgery:
- fWAR: 3.3 (12th)
- K-Rate: 35.8% (9th)
- FIP: 2.71 (10th)
- ERA: 2.66 (18th)
Unlike past seasons, Smith had a little bit of a platoon split in 2019. He was absolute death to lefties (-0.24 FIP and 58.3 percent K-rate!) but not so hot against righties (4.72 FIP and 29.2 percent K-rate). Perhaps it was just an anomaly, as he was pretty balanced against both sides from 2015 through 2018. During that time, Smith had a 2.64 FIP and 30.3 percent strikeout rate against righties and a 2.32 FIP and 36.2 percent strikeout rate vs. same-sided hitters.
As already noted, Tommy John before the 2017 campaign is big one in his medical records. The good news is that he’s pitched nearly two full seasons since completing rehab without any issues. His fastball velocity hasn’t bounced back, but it’s been no matter. It’s not like he’s a flamethrower, anyway.
Prior to TJS, Smith tore a knee ligament during spring training in 2016. It was a freak injury that occurred as he lost his balance while he took off one of his shoes.
The weird knee injury is whatever, but it’s always reasonable to be worried about any pitcher’s arm health. Still, the fact that Smith has returned from major elbow surgery with a flourish seems promising.
Per Statcast, Smith is essentially a two pitch pitcher. He primarily throws a four-seamer (46.8%) and a slider (42.3%), but will mix in a curveball (9.0%) from time-to-time. A changeup (1.8%) is a rare occurrence.
I’ve already touched on this, but Smith won’t light up the radar gun with his fastball. It’s not a high-spin offering, either, as it’s in the 39th percentile in all of the league.
His slider is quite impressive, though. It’s got quite a bit more sweeping action than the typical lefty slider. The pitch’s horizontal movement is roughly four inches more than league average.
Even with seemingly just one plus pitch, Smith racks up punchouts. But that’s not all — Smith generates a lot of inefficient contact. In 2018, the lefty was in the 99th percentile of xwOBA. He fell to the measly 91st percentile this season in the same category. Interestingly, his Hard Hit percentage and Exit Velocity marks are mediocre.
We’re still waiting on figures to be published on Fangraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, and elsewhere. Once those are out, this post will be published to reflect those amounts. Something in the range of the contracts for Adam Ottavino (3 years, $27 million) or Zack Britton (3 years, $39 million) seems like a reasonable guess.
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
Of course, especially if Chapman and Betances depart. And, if the Yankees are really trying to not blow the budget, Smith will be a bit more cost-effective than Chapman, for instance.
Now, in a world where the luxury tax is treated like a salary cap, I think there’s something to be said about not spending too much money on a bullpen, as I touched on earlier today. That’s my concern with Smith, particularly with Ottavino and Britton already on fairly significant deals. But if money is not an object, the Yankees should sign Smith.