Next Monday, August 1st, is the non-waiver trade deadline in baseball. So far, the Pirates have been only mentioned in rumors and whispers to certain low-impact players (like Jeremy Hellickson) or the odd inclusion in the rumor mill with Chris Archer.
One name they haven’t been connected to is Brewers’ reliever Will Smith, at least publicly. The left-handed Will Smith would make sense for the Pirates (and, admittedly, virtually every other ML team) on a variety of levels. First and foremost, he’s very good. Except this year, thanks to a pre-season knee injury, he’s not as good as in the past, which could represent an opportunity to buy him at a slightly reduced cost. His 3.72 ERA/4.02 FIP and velocity loss to 91.5 mph on his fastball may take a modicum of luster off of him.
Second, Smith is cheap. He’s only making $1.5M this year in his first year of arbitration, so the remainder of salary for 2016 is just a shade over $500,000. Always a consideration in the back of every Pirate fan’s mind this time of year.
Third, he’s under control for an additional three years. Yes, that means he is the dreaded Super 2 player. However, if you use our arbitration values article as reference (and scroll down to the Super 2 section), Super 2’s get 20%/33%/50%/70% of their free agent worth during their time in arbitration. That means that Smith has a rough free agent value of $7.5M and could expect to garner the following salaries:
- 2017 — $2.5M
- 2018 — $3.75M
- 2019 — $5.25M
Would you sign a hypothetical pitcher with a career K rate of 9.85 per 9 innings, coming off a career high in 2015 of 12.93 K/9 IP, to a 3 year/$11.5M deal? Because that’s essentially what the Pirates could expect to pay (within reasonable tolerances) over the three remaining years of arbitration control for Smith. If Smith were a pure free agent after the season, he would probably be expected to double that monetary outlay.
The 2016 season is Smith’s age-26 season (he recently turned 27), but he is well-traveled. Originally a 2008 draft pick of the Angels, Smith was traded to the Royals in 2010 and then to the Brewers in the 2013 offseason for Nori Aoki. His 2014 and 2015 seasons with the Brewers have been his career apex, as the lefty’s velocity peaked to 93 mph, which by my rule-of-thumb is equivalent to 95 mph for a righty. I attribute his velocity drop to 91.5 mph on his fastball to his season being pre-empted by a knee surgery and not being fully in shape this season.
The Pirates are most likely going to lose Mark Melancon after this season to free agency (he could also be traded during the course of this season). The Pirates have Tony Watson waiting in the wings to become the closer in 2017, a role that I think he would be fine in, but then Watson is eligible for free agency after 2017. Although highly unorthodox, the lefty Smith could be the primary setup man to the lefty closer Watson. Even if they blanch at the idea of having lefties in both the 8th and 9th innings, Smith could hold down the 7th inning with aplomb (like Feliz has in 2016) and the Pirates would just fill the setup man role, either internally or externally. Teasing the chain of succession out further, if Watson departs after 2017, the Pirates would still have Smith on hand as a potential closer for two additional seasons in 2018 and 2019.
The question of platoon splits does not come into play with Will Smith. Smith is slightly stronger against lefties, especially in terms of strikeouts, but his overall batting line against shows no discernible splits:
- Vs. LHB — .247/.311/.403
- Vs. RHB — .256/.333/.424
So what would the Pirates have to give up in a trade for Smith? Relievers are notoriously difficult to assess using our standard surplus value method. Reliever WAR doesn’t translate as well to the market, even less so at the trade deadline when the cost for a solid reliever gets crazy. Let’s presume that Smith is good for 1 WAR per season in 2017-19 and just some dust this season. For 3 WAR, that’s $24M on today’s market. Add in a few more million for trade deadline hijinks and then subtract out that proposed $11.5M future salary cost…let’s presume his trade cost to be $18M of value.
That’s pretty much a pitcher ranked #51-100 by our method ($16.5M). Recently, the Pirates’ Mitch Keller placed #52 on the Baseball America midseason updated Top 100. Even after you factor in some international picks and 2016 draftees, Keller should safely stay in the Top 100 next spring. So Mitch Keller for Will Smith straight up? I would definitely do that. Keller is having an excellent year in Low A West Virginia (97 IP, 14 BB, 100 K, 2.86 ERA), but it’s still Low A. He’s probably 3-4 years out from reaching the Majors. By that time, the Pirates will have extracted three years of value from a win-now asset in Will Smith, strengthening the bullpen of their major league team.
As for the old yarn that teams don’t trade within the division? False. The Brewers are not going to contend for anything until, by my guesstimate, at least 2019. That would coincide with Keller’s earliest potential arrival and dovetail nicely for them. The Pirates will be contenders for 2017, but after that season when they potentially trade McCutchen, their window may only be for another year or two before they have to consider a rebuild/reload. In short, they’re in totally different places on the win cycle. Would it be difficult to see Mitch Keller mow down Pirates from 2019 to 2024? Yes, but that’s the risk you take with any trade.