Smith made his big-league debut in 2012 for the Royals. He was then a starting pitcher. He hasn’t been since. Until 2018, he was a reliever but never a closer. He moved into that role with the Giants in 2018, just after returning from Tommy John surgery. Last season he was an All-Star. It was widely believed the rebuilding Giants would deal him at the deadline, but they moved Mark Melancon instead. He wound up closing for the Braves. He’s owed $14 million next year.
Melancon still might be the Braves’ closer. Smith made his big-league reputation as an eighth-inning guy with the Brewers and Giants. Besides, we of all people should know how fluid a bullpen can be. The Braves began last season with Arodys Vizcaino as their closer. He got hurt. Then he got traded. They tried Luke Jackson. They tried A.J. Minter. They tried Jackson again. They tried Shane Greene, also acquired at the deadline. They ended with Melancon. The baseball truism: There’s no such thing as too much pitching.
Since you asked: Yes, that’s a lot of money devoted to two ex-Giants relievers on the high side of 30, but wasn’t it just last winter that folks around here were castigating the Braves for not ponying up for Kimbrel? (Answer: Yes, it was.) But that begets the next question: With $40 million for a reliever as the offseason’s opening gambit, is there any doubt that the Braves are serious about getting to the World Series soon?
They've won the National League East twice running, losing in the Division Series both times. They've locked up Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Mike Soroka and Max Fried aren't anywhere near arbitration, let alone free agency. Dallas Keuchel is off the books. Julio Teheran is off the books. Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers just took cheapo deals. There's money to spend. Lo and behold, the Braves are spending.
Smith should shore up a bullpen that has resisted repeated efforts to be shored. Now it's on to bigger issues. Can Josh Donaldson, who'll command maybe $40 million X 2, be lured back? Will Yasmani Grandal take the Braves' money to upgrade the catching? Is there an established starting pitcher who'd be a prudent investment?
A guess: The $40 million for Smith could mean the Braves’ pursuit of a starter will be in trade, not free agency. (There’s money to spend, but maybe not that much.) If that’s the case, which prospects would the Braves be willing to shed? Certainly not Ian Anderson or Cristian Pache, probably not Drew Waters or Kyle Wright, but what of Kyle Muller or Bryse Wilson?
If there’s anything we’ve learned about Alex Anthopoulos and offseasons, it’s that he doesn’t mess around. He signed Donaldson and Brian McCann. Now Smith’s headed for the house that Cobb County built, and we’re two weeks from Thanksgiving. Yeah, Keuchel wasn’t signed until June – but that saved a draft pick, did it not? And here we note that the Braves’ signing of Smith means they’ll lose a pick, which goes to show how much they wanted the guy.
We’ve said it several times, but here it is again: For the Braves to become a champion of something more than the NL East, they’ll have to pitch better. They just spent $40 million in the attempt to pitch better. They’re on the right track.