In Drew Smyly, the Braves see $11 million worth of upside

Drew Smyly is 31. He has worked for six different organizations. He hasn’t won as many as 10 games in a season. The most he has made in a year is $7 million. The Braves, his seventh organization, will pay him $11 million in 2021.

That’s the number that leaped off the Braves’ official release Monday afternoon, and not just because it was included in the first paragraph — $11 million for Drew Smyly, journeyman. Was it a misprint? Answer: no. The club that throws nickels around like manhole covers wanted the world to know it’s paying a pitcher whom MLB Trade Rumors ranked the 44th-best free agent available more than double the salary MLB TR figured he’d get.

Said Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, speaking Monday on a conference call: “It’s an upside play, no doubt about it.”

Meaning: The Braves don’t care what anyone else thinks. They looked hard at this guy and liked what they saw. They were willing to overspend in November just to know they’ll have him for 2021.

That the Braves' first buy of this offseason was a starting pitcher who’s never drawn a Cy Young vote or made an All-Star team tells us two things. First, it tells us the Braves weren’t willing to bet that every young pitcher who looked good in October – Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Huascar Ynoa – will look that good over the fullness of a regular season. They’ll love it if they all do, but to rely on so many small sample sizes, even sample sizes as impressive as Anderson’s, is a fool’s errand.

Having made the playoffs three years running, the Braves have changed their criteria for starters. No longer do they want someone just to eat regular-season innings. Said Anthopoulos: "We always ask, ‘Do we think you can make a playoff start for us?’ "

Drew Smyly is to 2021 what Cole Hamels was supposed to be to 2020 and Dallas Keuchel was to 2019, only with a much lower profile and price tag. Hamels had been a World Series MVP; Keuchel had won a Cy Young. Those were big-ticket guys. Hamels' deal was for $18 million over a full season; Keuchel’s was for $13 million from June on.

How many postseason starts has Smyly made? Er, none. But here’s the second thing to know about this move: The Braves aren’t looking at Smyly for what he has been; they’re envisioning what they believe he’s about to become. They see a pitcher who started to set himself right after being cut by Texas and Milwaukee and signed by Philadelphia in the latter part of 2019, a pitcher who was better than his back-of-the-baseball-card numbers for San Francisco in 2020.

Smyly’s ERA for the Giants was 3.42. That’s good. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was 2.01, which was the lowest in the majors for non-relievers who worked more than 20 innings in the shortened season. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate was 14.35, better than Tyler Glasnow’s or Shane Bieber’s or Jacob deGrom’s. Smyly’s average fastball in 2020 was delivered at 93.8 mph, a career best. Opponents hit .237 against his four-seamer, .184 against his curve and .138 against his cutter.

We stipulate that Smyly worked seven games and 26 1/3 innings in 2020. That’s also a small sample size. (Then again, so was the entire irregular season.) But the Braves have analytic reasons for wanting him, same as they did with Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud an offseason ago.

Anthopoulos: “We think there’s tremendous upside. It’s very similar to Travis d’Arnaud, who we thought was just starting to scratch the surface … With Drew, we think he’s about to emerge and have the best years of his career.”

Then: “He was trending up in September of (2019), and he took a huge step this year. It’s a small sample. If it’s a big sample, I don’t think we’re looking at the same deal.”

Nope. Had Smyly had the same numbers over a six-month season, he’d have had suitors lined up from here to Walla Walla. Paying him $11 million might well be a case of the Braves bidding against themselves, but this is a guy they really, really wanted. “You’re trying to make determinations,” Anthopoulos said. “Our approach is be specific and target certain guys, and to be aggressive.”

The only thing that makes this a splash buy is the price. Smyly isn’t a big name. Baseball-Reference offers such non-luminaries as Rheal Cormier and John Tsitouris as points of comparison. But this is what the Braves of Anthopoulos – and all smart organizations – have come to do. They look for players who are about to have a career year, as opposed to those who’ve just had theirs. It worked with d’Arnaud and Ozuna. Maybe it’ll work again.