• Exclusives

    Gettin’ Jiggy with Smith, Payroll Numbers and Offseason Impact

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Will Smith learned his 2017 season would end on the operating table before it could begin thanks to a spring training injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, he tweeted a note of gratitude to San Francisco Giants fans, including the message, “Nothing a little hard work can’t fix!”

    Spoken like a true Georgia kid, whose hard work has brought him home.

    The Atlanta Braves seized the opportunity Thursday to make the first big strike of baseball’s offseason, signing Smith – the unquestioned top closer candidate on the free-agent market – to a three-year, $39 million contract, with a $13 million option for 2023. In doing so, not only did the Braves further vault their bullpen – such a source of consternation as recently as late July – toward elite status, they brought the Newnan product and Northgate High alum back to North Georgia.

    But this signing goes way beyond adding to the number of Peach State players on the roster (and Smith has plenty of company, from Tyler Flowers to Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and Charlie Culberson). It sends the message that the Braves are ready for the next stage of their emergence, they are ready to spend the money it takes to win, and are ready to make amends for an October gone so terribly wrong just a few short weeks back.

    How the Bullpen Looks

    Smith fully recovered from that left elbow injury that derailed his 2017 season and has dominated since, posting a 2.66 ERA (2.71 FIP) with a 1.006 WHIP, a 12.7 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, 48 saves, and 167 strikeouts against 36 walks in 118 1/3 innings across the past two seasons. The 30-year-old, who turns 31 in July, earned All-Star honors in 2019 and finished with 34 saves, a 2.76 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 21 walks in 65 1/3 innings.

    Smith held right-handers to a .212 average in 165 at-bats last season, but did give up nine homers (contributing to an OPS of .709). He absolutely was lethal against lefties, who posted a .157/.167/.229 slash line and a .395 OPS in 70 at-bats. His overall numbers were better away from pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, posting a 0.910 WHIP with a 13.7 strikeout-per-nine ratio in away games.

    Braves fans (not to mention fanbases of several other contenders) clamored for Smith at the trade deadline, but the Giants opted not to deal the lefty. Instead, veteran right-hander Mark Melancon was shipped to Atlanta. Smith now joins him and the other remaining trade-deadline acquisition, Shane Greene, to form a strong back end that has combined for 309 career saves.

    Suffice to say, Luke Jackson isn’t getting the ball in the ninth inning this season.

    Add in the re-signing of Darren O’Day – who impressed with his work in September and October – plus Jackson serving as a matchup righty, and perhaps Sean Newcomb, who will get a chance to start in spring training but was a revelation in relief in 2019, and the Braves bullpen is as good as anybody’s in the National League.

    Certainly, Braves Twitter will lead the league in Will Smith references next season, one year after Tiger Woods evolved from Masters champion to unofficial fanbase symbol.

    And this Will Smith isn’t going to Miami.

    He’s on his way back to Georgia.

    How the Payroll Looks

    Given some of the contracts doled out to relievers in recent years, the $13 million AAV (Average Annual Value) investment in Smith is a good deal for Atlanta. And while $13 million for 2020 may seem like a big chunk considering the salaries of Melancon ($14 million next season) and Greene (projected to make $6.5 million in arbitration per MLB Trade Rumors), the Braves payroll at the moment remains fine.

    How? Smith’s signing gives Atlanta 19 “locks” to make the 25-man opening-day roster. A breakdown:

    Starting Lineup (all dollars in millions): Freddie Freeman ($22.36), Ozzie Albies ($1), Dansby Swanson (projected in arbitration by MLBTR at $3.3), Nick Markakis ($4), Ender Inciarte ($7.7), Ronald Acuna Jr. ($1). Note: Markakis is listed as the starter, but he will platoon (he better platoon).

    Total: $39.36 million

    Open spots: Catcher, third base (more on this shortly).

    Bench (all dollars in millions): Charlie Culberson (projected $1.8), Johan Camargo (projected $1.6), Tyler Flowers ($4), Adam Duvall (projected $3.8).

    Total: $11.20 million

    Open spots: One

    Starting Rotation: Mike Soroka (MLB minimum $564,000, rounded to $570,000 for simplicity), Max Fried ($570,000), Mike Foltynewicz (projected $7.5 million), Newcomb ($570,000).

    Total: $9.21 million

    Open spots: One (assuming Newcomb is in the rotation).

    Bullpen (all dollars in millions): Smith ($13), Melancon ($14), Greene (projected $6.5), O’Day ($2.25), Jackson (projected $1.9).

    Total: $37.65 million

    Open spots: Three (again, assuming Newcomb is in the rotation)

    Grand total: 19 players, $97.42 million

    How Does Smith’s Signing Impact the Rest of the Offseason

    It certainly will have some impact, but I’d caution against some of the reactionary, absolute statements I saw on social media saying this means the Braves cannot pursue a reunion with third baseman Josh Donaldson. On the contrary, it’s my take the Smith signing should embolden those who want the Braves to think big and back it up by raising the payroll.

    The Braves window just now has opened. Yes, October sucked. I get it. But this team is set up to be right there for the next several years. For the value Melancon and Greene add – and yes, there was comfort in knowing that, for a change, there would be no worry about finding a closer entering 2020 – both are free agents after next season. Now the Braves have a closer through at least 2022. To sign a closer to this type of deal, even if closer wasn’t a priority just a few days ago, the Braves would have missed an opportunity if they didn’t act.

    The vast majority of the remaining members of the Braves 40-man roster (currently at 33 players) all will make the MLB minimum next season (except for catcher John Ryan Murphy, who is arbitration eligible but likely will be non-tendered, and reliever Grant Dayton, who is arbitration eligible and projects to an $800,000 salary). If, say, Austin Riley or Kyle Wright or A.J. Minter or Cristian Pache make the opening-day roster, the payroll impact will be minimal.

    There remains work to be done at three key areas: catcher, third base and one rotation spot. As I wrote last night, I still believe the Braves will sign Donaldson (the value I opined is $26 million AAV for three years; let’s say three years at $24 million per year brings him back) and should heavily pursue Yasmani Grandal (I speculated AAV would be between $16 million and $20 million; let’s split the difference at $18 million).

    If the Braves did sign those two and Grandal costs my midpoint, the opening day payroll would be at $139.42 million, with the need to add a starter. That’s where I think Mike Moustakas (my guess is three years at $40 million; an AAV of $13.33 million) could make a lot of sense, especially if the demand for Donaldson carries his deal into four-year territory or an AAV north of $26 million. Adding the combo of Moustakas and Grandal (at my midpoint) pushes the opening day payroll to $128.75 million, again with the need to add a starter.

    I wrote last night if the Braves go the free-agent route to find a front-line catcher and a third baseman, they likely would explore the trade market for a starter. I think that’s even more likely now, unless they look for a value signing at catcher (say, Jason Castro at perhaps $6 million) to form a true platoon with Flowers at a rate much lower than signing Grandal.

    Those numbers will draw some skepticism, and that’s fair. After all, Atlanta’s opening day payroll has exceeded $120 million just once this century ($122 million in 2017) according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. But at some point, the Braves must push the payroll north to further enhance their chances of pushing deeper into October, with the goal of grabbing the pot of gold that awaits the last team standing come Halloween.

    Thursday’s signing signals the Braves indeed are pushing, and the thought here is acquiring Smith is the first salvo of a transformational winter.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.