Alex Anthopoulos brought out the checkbook this past offseason, but it wasn’t for a superstar like many Braves’ fans might have expected. Instead, he focused on stabilizing the bullpen by signing Will Smith to a three-year deal with $40 million guaranteed and a fourth-year option, which was the largest contract handed out by Anthopoulos to a free-agent since he became the GM in 2017.
Unfortunately, Smith’s tenure as a Brave got off to the worst possible start, as he tested positive for the coronavirus before the restart of the season. Thankfully, he was asymptomatic, but it still kept him out for over two weeks, and when he came back, he wasn’t exactly as sharp as he would have hoped.
In Smith’s first eight appearances (7.2 innings), he surrendered five earned runs (5.87 ERA), and nearly all of the damage came courtesy of the long ball, as he surrendered four home runs. The problems continued to begin September; he gave up two earned runs on two homers in his first three appearances of the month, but from September 12th on, he’s been a different animal.
Smith only allowed one earned run in his last seven appearances — good for a 1.69 ERA. Of course, that lone run did come off the longball. However, you’ll take that when he’s holding opponents to a .118 batting average and .461 OPS. Still, I was a little unsure how Brian Snitker might use him in the postseason, but the Braves’ manager chose to turn to him in the critical moments of Games 1 and 2 in the Wild Card Series, and he delivered like a player deserving of a $40 million contract.
In a scoreless game going into the 10th inning, Smith relieved Mark Melancon and made light work of the Reds lineup — a theme of the Wild Card Series for the entire Braves’ pitching staff — striking out two and forcing a weak groundout. He pitched so well that Snitker let him go out for the 11th as well, and he struck out Tucker Barnhart before being replaced by Darren O’Day.
That dominating performance gave Snitker the confidence to turn to Smith again in Game 2 — this time with a one-run lead in the 7th — and just like Game 1, Smith was flawless. He struck out two and forced another weak groundout to set the Reds down in order, giving him a Wild Card Series line of 2.1 innings, 0 runs, 0 hits, 0 walks, and 5 strikeouts. That’s exactly what Alex Anthopoulos was thinking when he signed him this offseason.
Last week, when I provided grades for each offseason acquisition, I gave Smith a meager C-. However, I left the door open for him to improve on that mark significantly in the postseason.
How successful (Smith’s) 2020 campaign is viewed will likely be determined by his performance in the postseason. But for right now, it’s difficult to give this move anything higher than a C, and it could turn out much worse if this season is a sign of things to come.
I’d say he’s off to a pretty good start, and with Smith returning to form, the Braves’ bullpen — that was already among the best in baseball — is looking as dangerous as ever heading into the NLDS. Add a red-hot Max Fried and Ian Anderson into the mix, and Atlanta’s pitching staff is not nearly as vulnerable as some have been making it out to be.
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