Today we take a look at Brewers reliever Will Smith, the NL leader in game appearances. The lefty joined the Brewers prior to this season in a 1-for-1 trade that sent right fielder Nori Aoki to Kansas City.
After working his way through the Royals minor league system, Smith proved ineffective as a starter in 16 games during the 2012 season, posting a 5.32 ERA while allowing 11.1 hits per 9 innings.
The Royals subsequently moved Smith to the bullpen for the 2013 season, where he excelled, holding batters to a .170 BA over 29 1/3 innings as a reliever, with a 11.7 K/9 as a reliever over a 5.9 K/9 as a starter in 2012.
Then, prior to the 2014 season, Aoki was the odd man out of a Brewers’ outfield, and the Royals were a contending team that needed a lead-off hitter. The Brewers needed to replace John Axford and unproductive innings eater Mike Gonzalez, making the trade logical for both teams.
Now, nearing the end of August, the trade still seems to have worked out similarly for each team, but not quite in the way either team had hoped. Aoki’s OPS is down to .662 from .726 in 2013, and Smith has struggled greatly against right-handed hitters.
In 2013, Smith was dominant against lefties (.157 BA), but he was also quite good against righties (.235 BA), and looked every part of a future late inning reliever, or perhaps even deserving of a second look as a starter. This season, however, Smith has faltered.
Smith is again annihilating lefties (.165/.233/.266), but right-handed batters are hitting .304/.395/.474 against the towering southpaw, very concerning for a team using him as their primary set-up man.
There is a chance that his recent struggles are due to a heavy workload this year, as he has never succeeded at the Major League level while pitching as much as he has this season.
The Brewers certainly hope that overuse is the cause of his struggles, because he showed flashes of being a dominant late-inning guy early this season. Currently he is performing more like a lefty specialist, and while he is truly great against his fellow lefties, he would be falling well short of his promising ceiling.
Heading toward the postseason, the Brewers need Smith to bounce back, or they will have to consider other options in the set-up role. Zach Duke has handle players on both side of the plate, but he has struggled in the second half, and has little experience in late, high-leverage situations.
The Brewers could instead be stuck with a mixed bag in the bullpen before closer Francisco Rodriguez, potentially setting up by committee, using the hottest pitcher at any given time.
Long term, Smith will be a valuable piece to the Brewers organization, but his future role is still in question. Smith will not be a free agent until after the 2020 season, and the Brewers desperately need someone to anchor their ‘pen long term.
Milwaukee has never made their bullpen a top priority, frequently building their relief corps mostly out of cheap free agents and Non-Roster Invitees. This means that retaining a relatively young arm that can handle late innings would be very beneficial to the team.
This of course relies on Smith proving he is more than just a LOOGY, but either way, having the promising young lefty under contract until the end of the decade bodes well for the Crew, and acquiring Smith will be remembered as a smart move.