SAN FRANCISCO — It has become commonplace to hear that a pitcher will have Tommy John surgery and automatically assume that he’ll come back in a year and possibly be better than before. That’s not always true, but Will Smith provided another bit of positive evidence in his return.
Smith had a target date and hit it, returning after missing the entire 2017 season and eventually taking over the closer’s job and saving 14 games. It was about as successful a first year back as he could have hoped. Here are the highs and lows …
What Went Right: Smith had a 2.55 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 54 appearances, but even those numbers don’t truly tell the story of how dominant he was. Smith gave up runs in his final two appearances, but through Sept. 18, he had a 1.76 ERA. He was at 0.95 on July 11 after throwing two shutout innings in his 29th game back. Smith piled up 12.06 strikeouts-per-nine, which was eighth among NL relievers, and he ranked 14th by allowing a .194 opponents average.
Smith’s fastball averaged 93.3 miles per hour, according to Brooks Baseball, which was up a tick from 2016. He maxed out at 96.3 mph. His slider was a wipeout pitch, and opponents had a .116 average against it with a slugging percentage of .188.
From a health perspective, Smith checked off all the boxes, going multiple innings six times and throwing on three consecutive days multiple times. Oh, and he became the third Giants reliever to win the Willie Mac Award.
What Went Wrong: Perhaps Smith hit a wall after a year of intense rehab and several months as the closer, but he had a 6.75 ERA in September and gave up four runs in his final appearance. Opponents hit .333 against him over that final month. The Giants also used him a lot in late August, and that could have played into it. It’s hard to find too much to quibble with in his numbers, although he did blow three of his final 10 save opportunities.
That last appearance certainly stung. With the Giants trailing the Dodgers by one in a game that could have knocked the eventual champs out of the NL West race, Smith gave up four in the top of the ninth and walked off the mound without completing the inning.
Contract Status: Smith made $2.5 million in 2018 and is arbitration eligible for the final time before becoming a free agent. MLB Trade Rumors estimates he’ll make about $4.1 million in 2019.
The Future: Smith’s status is directly related to one question: Do the Giants actually intend to try to compete in 2019?
If they do, they’ll need their closer, and Smith is set for that role on Opening Day. If the Giants are realistic about all this and take a step back, they should trade Smith. He’s a 29-year-old who could step in and be the top lefty in almost every contender’s bullpen, and if the Giants don’t think they’re making the playoffs next year, they should ship Smith out for a nice prospect haul. Some in the organization wondered why Smith and Tony Watson weren’t traded for prospects in July, but Smith’s value is still extremely high given how well he pitched and his expected salary, and the Giants could still do well either this offseason or at the next trade deadline.