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To close out the Brewers likely seventh inning set-up committee, we’re projecting the 2015 season for Will Smith. The big lefty came to the Brewers in a one-for-one trade with the Royals prior to last season that sent outfielder Nori Aoki to Kansas City.
The deal worked well for both teams in 2014, though Aoki is now a Giant via free agency and the Brewers still have Smith’s rights for several years.
Smith originally signed with the Angels after being drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. In 2010 he was traded to the Royals as part of a deal that sent Alberto Callaspo to the Angels.
He was a starter all throughout the minors, and his success led to a callup in 2012, when he started 16 games with Kansas City, posting a 5.32 ERA, allowing over 11 hits per 9 and striking out under 6.
The Royals sent Smith back to the minors, where he worked as both a starter and reliever while the Royals decided where he was best suited. After being hit hard in his only start in the Bigs in April of 2013, the Royals used him exclusively as a reliever for the remainder of his time with the club.
Smith ended the year with 29 1/3 innings out of the ‘pen, with a 2.45 ERA, a .170 BAA, and a 6.33 K/BB ratio. Smith is hardly the only young pitcher to have success moving into the bullpen after struggling out of the rotation, and the Brewers were understandably interested.
The Crew had just seen the emergence of left fielder Khris Davis, making shipped Aoki expendable. The trade worked well, as Davis adequately and promisingly replaced Aoki while Smith led the league in games pitched.
Smith was dominant at times with a wipeout slider that was just as hard on right-handed batters as lefties (.118 BAA, .029 ISO). He also got his first overwhelmingly positive season out of his curveball, which had flashed potential in the previous years but had always been hit hard overall.
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He also saw his average fastball velocity jump almost two miles per hour to just over 94, an obvious benefit of pitching out of the bullpen. Smith ended the year with an average 3.70 ERA, but he passed the eye-test, and his peripherals attest to a greater performance (3.25 FIP, 2.76 SIERA).
He could also benefit from a slightly reduced workload, as he may have fatigued later in the year. I think Smith will still appear in a lot of games, but I would be surprised if his innings pitched remain as high.
He has Brandon Kintzler and Jeremy Jeffress to split time with, and could see increased time against tough lefties in crucial situations. Last year Smith had Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny to split time with against lefty hitters, but with the exception of Neal Cotts, who has reverse splits anyway, the Brewers have no strong options to face lefty sluggers in tight situations.
G 68 IP 56 ERA 3.12 FIP 3.04 WHIP 1.304 H/9 8.2 HR/9 0.9 GB% 44.4% BB/9 3.6 K/9 10.8 K/BB 3.0
Smith had an unusually high walk rate (4.2 per 9 innings) last year, actually noticeably worse than the one he achieved in his time as an unsuccessful starter. I expect that number to come down, as well as his astounding K rate.
The more lefties Smith faces in 2015, the better his numbers will be. I expect Smith to eventually be good enough to be a solid closer or premium setup man for the Crew. It’s hard to ignore Smith’s career splits, however, which were even more pronounced in 2014.
Last season righties hit Smith hard, ending the year with a collective .872 OPS against a dominant .516 OPS versus lefties. These splits are common among lefty-specialists, but Smith is more than that.
In that way the Brewers are in a tough spot with Smith going into 2015. Assuming they will acknowledge Cotts’ limitations, Smith should be seen as the go-to guy when eliminating lefty batters late in games. He’s also one of the team’s top relievers in general, and performed well as the set-up man last year.
Thus, the Brewers can’t afford to pigeonhole Smith and keep him from facing righties. I think in the end they should bring him in to face lefties in key spots and simply leave him in to finish out his inning.
Steamer currently projects the big lefty to post a 3.13 ERA and 3.14 FIP with a dramatically reduced walk rate (3.01 per 9). While there are questions about his role, I expect Smith to be the Brewers best reliever in 2015.