New Braves reliever Will Smith describes himself as a “black-and-white kind of guy.” When he entered free agency, he made two desires abundantly clear to his agency: He hoped to play for a winner and he wanted the process to be completed as quickly as possible.
The hometown Braves met his criteria, quickly putting together the optimal contract that swayed Smith from accepting the Giants’ one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer. The Braves gave Smith a three-year deal worth $39 million. It includes a $13 million club option for 2023 (which includes a $1 million buyout).
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A Newnan native, Smith now dons the emblem that invokes memories of his years long before becoming an All-Star lefty. When the deal was struck, he called his fiancee Taylor — also a Georgia native (the couple will be married next November) — and his parents, all overjoyed. After a career that took him to Kansas City, Milwaukee and San Francisco, he’d found his way back to where he started.
“It was surreal to tell them I’d be an Atlanta Brave, the team we grew up watching,” Smith said at his introductory press conference Tuesday. “Just to be closer to home and on this side of the country is huge.
“I remember laying in my parents’ room and watching games with my dad. Or coming to games. We came to a lot of games, but every year we’d get really good seats and me and my dad would get to go. It’s just something I’ve always remembered and always loved. Anytime I see that Braves emblem, it just makes me think of all the times of me growing up with my mom and dad, driving me everywhere to play games and being Braves fans.”
Smith returns at the perfect time: The Braves are brimming with youth and enthusiasm, coming off back-to-back postseason berths and are emerging as one of the National League’s headline franchises. It’s been a while since they’d been viewed in such a way, though Smith remembers those days too — he wore No. 47 growing up in honor of fellow southpaw Tom Glavine.
The 30-year-old saw it firsthand in September. The Braves clinched the NL East against his Giants at SunTrust Park. Neither side knew it at the time, but it was quite the sales pitch.
“When we were here last year when they clinched, just to watch how happy everybody was – as a player, you want that feeling,” he said. “I knew at that time I wasn’t going to get that feeling (that season with San Francisco). You look over at how young they are, how talented they are, how they gelled on the field together really well as a family. As a player on the other side, that’s what you want. That’s what you’re looking for. So it makes the decision a little bit easier too to come over here.”
For Smith, it was his third consecutive season missing the playoffs after the Giants won 77 games. The Braves would later fizzle out in October, losing the NLDS to the Cardinals. In that series, the Braves lacked reliable bullpen options. They surely lacked a left-hander of Smith’s caliber.
Every postseason, we’re reminded how important relievers are. The Braves are continuing their search for rotation help. They’re seeking a third baseman, be it Josh Donaldson or an alternative. But adding Smith changes the dynamic of the team in a five-or-seven-game series. It could also result in the Braves’ best bullpen in five years.
“This was specifically about Will; it wasn’t just about adding a left-handed reliever or a good reliever by itself,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “We’re very selective, especially if we’re making long commitments. Will checked every box for us. His ability is outstanding. Left-handed, can close, can set up. Unbelievable team guy from the work we did on him, great in the clubhouse. So highly thought of across the game. We’ve talked about trying to flood our clubhouse with guys like that.
“When you talk about elite talent, great talent, high character, great teammate, I believe those players can make other players a lot better. When we did our work on Will, we thought that way.”
Smith is coming off his first All-Star season, one in which he earned a 2.76 ERA with a 96:21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 63 appearances. It was his second consecutive productive season since he was sidelined the entire 2017 campaign due to elbow surgery.
Mark Melancon is still expected to handle the ninth inning entering the season. Smith and fellow 2019 All-Star Shane Greene boast closing experience and will have their chances as well.
“Snit (manager Brian Snitker) will make the decisions, but that’s the thought going into the year,” Anthopoulos said. “Mark did a good job in the role. There’s no reason to change. (Snitker) can deploy Will in all kinds of important spots, especially coming from the left side. It really allows him to be selective.”
Smith’s mindset: “If you come in and save the seventh or eighth, consider yourself the closer of that inning.” He stressed he’s happy being used however the Braves need him.
Coincidentally, Smith and Melancon were locker mates in San Francisco before the latter was traded to Atlanta at the deadline. Melancon was one of the first to text Smith when his signing was official.
Smith was the first major free agent to sign this winter. It finally provides him certainty after spending the last year shrouded in trade rumors. The Giants were supposed to be the center of the trade deadline, moving Smith and starter Madison Bumgarner, but their hot streak before July 31 ceased those plans. The Braves, who were interested in Smith, and other teams had to look elsewhere for help.
Once Smith stayed put, it was entirely possible he’d spend another season in San Francisco. They made the qualifying offer, which would’ve rewarded him a hefty sum (especially for a reliever). It also could’ve scared teams away, since they’d relinquish a draft choice for signing him.
The Braves weren’t fazed. They lost a second rounder for signing Smith, who was prepared to take the Giants’ offer if the right terms weren’t on the table. The Braves gave Smith everything he wanted: Security, fair financial compensation, a winner and the chance to play in front of his family and friends.
And it’s an “amazing” feeling.
“That’s one thing I did make clear with my agency: I don’t want this thing to drag out,” Smith said. “If we know what we want, let’s either get it done or go back to San Francisco for the year. We took everything into consideration and we were able to get it done. I feel so much better now that we have the whole offseason to continue to work out and get better and know where I’m going to play.
“We knew what we wanted. We knew we wanted to come to a winner. I’m a real black-and-white kind of guy, yes and no, right and wrong. So it was just let’s get this done. It got done pretty quick and I was happy it was over.”
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