Will Smith has clear priority hitting MLB free agency for first time


Will Smith has clear priority hitting MLB free agency for first time

SAN FRANCISCO -- Will Smith tried not to worry about what August might bring as the trade deadline approached this summer, and as he prepared for his final few games as a Giant, he took the same approach with free agency. Smith said he was happy to let his agents at CAA handle all the details until it was time for a final decision to be made. 

"That's their ninth inning, is them figuring that stuff out," Smith told NBC Sports Bay Area. "I'll take care of the ninth inning here. That's kind of how we view it."

Smith took care of the ninth better than just about anyone in the National League, which surely pleased those agents who now will try and potentially find him a new home. The 30-year-old lefty should be the most coveted reliever on the market, and he fits just about any situation. 

Need a closer? Smith had 34 saves in 38 opportunities for a bad team and rarely even had a stressful ninth. He struck out a career-high 13.2 batters per nine innings. 

Need a dominant lefty for your seventh or eighth? Smith can face either lefties or righties, but he wiped out same-side hitters, allowing just a .395 OPS to lefty hitters and striking out 42 of the 72 he faced. 

Need a good clubhouse guy? A leader for your bullpen? Someone who has proven durable and willing to pitch multiple innings? Smith, a Willie Mac Award winner, checks all the boxes. 

In short, Smith could pitch anywhere next season. The Nationals, Twins, Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Phillies and other potential contenders will be looking for late-inning help. Smith's hometown Braves loom as an intriguing option. Smith spends his offseasons attending Falcons games and the Braves, who had Mark Melancon closing postseason games, could use a steadier hand in the ninth. 

The Giants will need a closer, too, and they'll be happy to have Smith back if he accepts the $17.8 million qualifying offer. But given their situation, it's hard to picture them winning a bidding war. Smith is expected to get at least a three-year deal and should be looking at upwards of $40 million overall. 

Smith said he enjoyed his time in San Francisco, calling it an "awesome group" with a "bullpen that's really close." He wanted to see who would take over for Bruce Bochy, but that should be settled soon. Smith's preference is to close, and the Giants could offer him that gig for the foreseeable future, unlike some teams that may view him as just another cog in a dominant bullpen. 

But there's a major drawback to staying in San Francisco. For as much improvement as the Giants showed in some areas, they still are not close to being a true contender. As Smith talked about what's important, he mentioned how much 2016 meant to him. He got a taste of the postseason and would do anything to get back. 

[RELATED: Why Zack Wheeler could be perfect Giants fit in free agency]

"I've said this from Day 1: I don't care how much I make -- I'll play for free, I really will -- I just want to win," Smith said. "You play to be the best, you play for the ring, you play for the trophy, you play for a World Series. After going in 2016 and getting that little bit of a taste, you never want to go home early. It's kind of sad when you leave and other teams get to keep playing. You want to be one of those final teams that have a shot at it."

The Giants went home early in three of Smith's four seasons in San Francisco. He should have no shortage of options if he wants to join a contender right away, although it's possible the qualifying offer will depress his market enough that a reunion makes sense. That's something Smith's agents will figure out in the coming weeks. The lefty did his part to put himself in a good situation, and soon he'll get rewarded for it. 

Why Giants mentioned Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole in explaining new staff


Why Giants mentioned Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole in explaining new staff

SAN DIEGO -- When you hear the words "player development," you think of 19-year-olds learning on back fields at the minor league facility in Scottsdale, or a roving hitting instructor spending time making swing changes with prospects Joey Bart or Heliot Ramos, or a coach teaching a Logan Webb or Sean Hjelle a new pitch. 

But when Giants manager Gabe Kapler talks about player development -- and he does so often -- he's also thinking about guys like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. Kapler said this week that there's "not much I feel more strongly about" than players continuing to develop at the big league level, and that played a huge role as he hired a young staff that will ideally bring an innovative approach.

"There's evidence all over the place in Major League Baseball about players who reinvent themselves or take major steps forward and reestablish their value at the Major League level," Kapler said this week at the MLB Winter Meetings. 

The Giants are building for the future, but they also believe they can squeeze much more out of the existing core. And when Bart and Ramos are veterans one day, they want those guys to continue to find new levels, too. As he talked about player development at the big league level, Kapler pivoted and told a story about Bryce Harper, who already had more than 900 games under his belt when he joined Kapler's Phillies last season. 

"Bryce Harper, I think, was influenced heavily by Paco Figueroa, our first base and outfield coach, mostly just because Paco was not concerned about approaching Bryce," Kapler said. "He recognized that Bryce Harper wanted to be coached and wanted to develop, and he was willing to approach. Bryce recognized that so much so that at the end of the year when we were doing our exit meetings, Bryce recognized that Paco had been influential in his career and helped him become a better outfielder and baserunner."

Harper was worth negative-26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018 according to Fangraphs -- just about the only blemish on his résumé as a free agent -- but was plus-9 in his first season in Philadelphia, a massive improvement. The Giants were actually intent on going that path long before Kapler arrived. When they offered Harper $310 million last year, their existing analytics and coaching staffs had ideas about how they could get more out of Harper defensively with positioning changes. 

Harper's not the only example the Giants will use to sell their vision to veteran players. General manager Scott Harris mentioned Gerrit Cole as another who found new ways to add to his game. 

"Look at the strides he made the last two seasons and now he signed the largest free-agent contract (for a pitcher) in the history of the game," Harris said. "You look at the strides he made when he first burst onto the scene for the Pirates and what he did in Houston. Their coaching staff was largely responsible for the development he saw at the Major League level."

The Astros' staff has gotten a lot of credit for turning Cole into the pitcher the Pirates were expecting when they took him first overall in 2011. Cole had a 3.50 ERA in Pittsburgh and a 2.68 ERA in Houston, where his strikeout rate jumped from 8.4 per nine innings to 13.1. He was worth 15.4 WAR in five seasons with the Pirates and then skyrocketed to 13.4 in two seasons in Houston. 

[RELATED: Kershaw believes Dodgers signing MadBum would be 'great']

Kapler and Harris are not walking into an organization that has a Harper or Cole, but they believe their new coaching staff and player-development methods can get the most out of existing talent. That'll be a focus in spring training, and the conversations have already begun with some veterans. Kapler, who mentioned J.D. Martinez as another example of late-career adjustments, said he has spoken to Posey multiple times since getting hired. 

"I think that a lot of established successful Major Leaguers want to get better and sometimes they don't know how," Kapler said. "In some cases, it's because coaches haven't approached them because they don't want to break something that's working well, but I think those days are gone and I think players crave having coaches approach them and ask them to make changes."

Dodgers signing Madison Bumgarner would be 'great,' Clayton Kershaw says

Dodgers signing Madison Bumgarner would be 'great,' Clayton Kershaw says

Despite what Giants fans want to believe, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw are friends.

Before many Giants-Dodgers games over the years, they could be seen talking on the field, in plain sight of everyone.

So it should come as any surprise that Kershaw would love to have Bumgarner on the Dodgers.

"I love Bum," Kershaw said Friday at a Dodgers holiday event according to Dodgers Nation. "If we signed him, that’d be great."

NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic reported Thursday, citing sources, that the Dodgers and Bumgarner have a mutual interest in a deal.

Bumgarner in Dodger blue is the worst nightmare for Giants fans. But it's a real possibility with Los Angeles missing out on top free agent Gerrit Cole.

[RELATED: Padres reportedly looking at Bumgarner]

Kershaw hasn't been able to bring a World Series to Los Angeles on his own, so of course, he would love for a postseason hero to come help him end the Dodgers' title drought.