Braves address bullpen early in offseason with Will Smith signing

Will Smith spent his 2019 summer making his first All-Star appearance and being linked to various trade-deadline buyers — teams like the Atlanta Braves. On Thursday evening, after declining the San Francisco Giants‘ qualifying offer, Atlanta landed the veteran left-hander at the price of three years and $39 million.

The first major free-agent splash of baseball’s offseason comes complete with a 2023 club option worth $13 million. Smith’s option features a $1 million buyout, essentially guaranteeing him $40 million to help solidify a middle-of-the-pack relief corps.

The signing also required the Braves, who did not exceed the luxury tax threshold or receive revenue sharing last season, to forfeit their second-highest 2020 draft pick and international bonus pool money. After winning 97 games in 2019, Atlanta will pick 25th overall next summer.

The addition of Smith arrives days after the team announced the return of veteran right-hander Darren O’Day, who impressed down the stretch and in the postseason after missing most of regular season due to injury. With Smith and O’Day in the fold, the Braves currently feature 2019 bullpen staples Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb to go along with the franchise’s stockpile of young arms. (Newcomb will also be afforded the opportunity to rejoin the rotation during spring training.)

Smith, a 30-year-old Newnan, Ga. native, is one of baseball’s better bullpen options and was likely the top reliever available on the free-agent market.

The left-hander owns the 22nd-best ERA (2.84) and a top-30 FanGraphs WAR among qualified relievers over the past four seasons. In 2019, Smith struck out 37.4 percent of batters with an adjusted ERA that was 34 percent better than league average. He also saved a career-high 34 games on a 77-win team.

Melancon, who was Smith’s teammate in San Francisco, sent out this message after the signing: “We just got even better. Counting down to February.”

Atlanta’s deadline additions of Melancon, Greene and effective rental Chris Martin shored up the team’s relief situation, but even with Max Fried joining the group during the NLDS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals there were late-inning question marks. The team finished ranked 21st in reliever WAR, 14th in adjusted ERA and 15th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Smith should help improve those rankings immediately.

However, bullpen was not considered the most pressing concern for the franchise this offseason.

With star Josh Donaldson rejecting his qualifying offer (as expected), the Braves have plenty of financial wiggle room but major holes to fill, most notably at third base and catcher following Brian McCann‘s retirement. Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall are under contract in the team’s outfield, but upgrading the group around Ronald Acuña Jr. should be on the table. As Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran hit free agency, there are also open rotation spots to address.

Will Smith should be a welcome addition to Atlanta’s relief corps. How Atlanta handles the remainder of the offseason will determine how often its newest addition takes the mound with a lead in 2020.