Braves sign veteran lefty Drew Smyly to one-year deal

San Francisco Giants' Drew Smyly pitches against Colorado Rockies' Raimel Tapia during the first inning Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

San Francisco Giants' Drew Smyly pitches against Colorado Rockies' Raimel Tapia during the first inning Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

The Braves struck quickly this offseason, just as they did last winter. The team signed 31-year-old lefty Drew Smyly to a one-year, $11 million deal Monday afternoon.

Smyly had a 3.42 ERA in seven appearances (five starts) for the Giants in 2020. He earned a career-best strikeout rate (37.8 percent), fanning 42 hitters in 26-1/3 innings. His 14.35 strikeouts-per-nine-innings led pitchers who made five or more starts. He also held opposing hitters to a .198/.261/.297 mark.

The shortened 2020 campaign was an encouraging rebound for Smyly, who had a 6.24 ERA in 25 appearances across 2019 for the Rangers and Phillies. That was his first season back after missing 2017 and 2018 following Tommy John surgery. Smyly was formerly a promising young pitcher for the Tigers and Rays, earning a 3.74 ERA (3.82 FIP) from 2012-2016 before injuries derailed his career.

The Braves, who are developing a reputation for aggressively attacking needs early in the offseason, wasted little time completing an agreement with Smyly. The veteran grew up a Braves fan after being born in Gainesville, Georgia, and raised in Arkansas. He identified the Braves as a preferred landing spot because of his life-long connection to the franchise and desire to experience the postseason again. Smyly has only seen October baseball twice with the Tigers in 2012 and 2013.

“Unless you’re one of the cream-of-the-crop players, everyone has a little anxiety about (free agency),” Smyly said from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. “The Braves reached out right away and were pretty aggressive with our communications. To me, that meant a lot. I didn’t sign with the Giants last year until January, so I told my agent early on I’d really like to land in a spot - Atlanta was already on the top of my list, so once they called, I said I’d love to get a deal done quickly just so we don’t have to wait out this period, especially with COVID hanging over everybody’s heads. It was awesome we were able to get it done quick.”

Smyly’s improvement late in 2019 put him on the Braves’ radar last winter, according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos. His further growth with the Giants made him a player the Braves prioritized as a free-agent target.

“In our minds, he started trending upwards that last month with the Phillies (in 2019),” Anthopoulos said. “He took another step forward this past year in terms of his stuff. When he came back from the finger injury, his last four outings were really strong and there were a lot of swings and misses that are backed up by really strong stuff.”

What Anthopoulos saw: In his final five outings with the Phillies in 2019, Smyly allowed more than three earned runs only once. He struck out 30 over 24-2/3 innings while holding opponents to a .237 average. This season in San Francisco, after Smyly returned from a finger injury that sidelined him over a month, he had a 3.50 ERA with 31 strikeouts against five walks in 18 innings (four appearances). His excellence helped the rebuilding Giants push for a spot in the expanded postseason, though they still fell just short.

Anthopoulos praised Smyly’s curveball as “one of the better curveballs in the game.” Smyly also relies on a fastball and cutter, the former of which saw its velocity bump up from 91.2 mph in 2019 to 93.8 in 2020. The pitcher’s recent improvement led Anthopoulos and his staff to view Smyly similarly to another previously injured veteran the Braves targeted last winter: Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who just won the Silver Slugger following the best offensive season of his career.

“This is an upside play, no doubt about it,” Anthopoulos said. “We’ll obviously find out eight, 10 months from now how that worked out. But we think Drew has tremendous upside and he’s only scratched the surface. We think it’s very similar — and it’s not the same position — but we felt like Travis d’Arnaud was starting to scratch the surface and embark on some of the better years of his career. I know it was a small sample size, but the first year went well. We view Drew in the same area that he’s about to emerge and have some of the best years of his career. We made that determination and signed him to what we feel is a healthy, strong deal. Hopefully all sides win and he has a very strong year.”

The Braves were expected to pursue rotation help after enduring seemingly endless starting pitching issues throughout the 60-game season. The Braves have only two starters, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, who should be considered “locks” for the 2021 opening-day rotation. Mike Soroka, who tore his Achilles in August, would be the third if he’s healthy (and the team likes how his rehab has progressed). Youngster Kyle Wright likely will also be among that group. Anthopoulos was complimentary of Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa during his conference call Monday.

Smyly adds to that depth and gives the team another middle-to-back-of-the-rotation option with some upside. He’s also another lefty to pair with Fried. The Braves tried a similar method last offseason in signing veteran lefty Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18 million deal, but injuries squandered Hamels’ short Braves career. Hamels, who’s 36, didn’t provide the untapped potential the team sees in Smyly, however.

The Braves reinvested a chunk of Hamels’ cleared money into Smyly. It continues the franchise’s recent trend of healthy one-year free-agent commitments, which retains the team’s flexibility and spares it long-term risk. Rotation-wise, the Braves have tried to balance their youth with short-term veteran additions in the past two seasons.

“When we’re looking at starters, a lot of our mindset is ‘Do we think you can make a playoff start for us?’ ” Anthopoulos said. “We have to get in first, but if we’re at that position, do we think you have the upside to be be one of those four or five guys that could make a start? We signed him for his ability, first and foremost, and we like what he brings to the team and clubhouse as well.”

This was the Braves’ second signing of the offseason. They re-signed long-reliever Josh Tomlin earlier this month. It should be another busy winter for the National League runner-ups: The Braves will need to either keep or replace free-agent slugger Marcell Ozuna and keep or replace (perhaps internally) key relievers Mark Melancon and Shane Greene. They’ll continue exploring rotation help and bench upgrades.

“I know this sounds generic, but we’re trying to have as complete a team as we can,” Anthopoulos said. “We will not force a move. We can get better in all areas, rotation, bullpen, offense, but we’re not going to force a move we don’t believe in. Whatever you see us do are things we feel strongly about.”