Will Smith

Giants Review: Will Smith dominates in return, but will he be 2019 closer?

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Giants Review: Will Smith dominates in return, but will he be 2019 closer?

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. 

Why Giants have some difficult decisions based off arbitration projections

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Why Giants have some difficult decisions based off arbitration projections

SAN FRANCISCO — When he was asked about his arbitration-eligible players earlier this month, vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean pointed out that the Giants are not trying to come to terms with a huge name like Bumgarner or Posey. The list is one full of players who saw plenty of time in 2018, though. 

The Giants have six players eligible for arbitration, including their starting second baseman and three key members of the bullpen. They generally have not had tough arbitration decisions in recent years, but there’s a strong chance they non-tender at least one or two of these players and spend that money elsewhere.

Sabean, who is still in charge until a new executive is hired, would not give hints one way or the other. 

“Whether they’ll still be on the team, that’s for somebody else to decide,” he said. “We are not worried about arbitration.”

The Giants should have someone new in place by the time these decisions have to be made in about six weeks, but thanks to MLB Trade Rumors we can take an early look at what the six players might be looking at. The website projects arbitration salaries each year and has proven to have a very accurate model. Here are this year’s projections: 

Sam Dyson – $5.4MM
Joe Panik – $4.2MM
Will Smith – $4.1MM
Hunter Strickland – $2.5MM
Gorkys Hernandez – $1.6MM
Chase d’Arnaud – $800K

Smith, the closer, is a no-brainer. He’ll be back at some price in that neighborhood, and the Giants might want to look into discussing a multi-year deal given how well he threw in 2018.

Dyson also pitched well, posting a 2.69 ERA in 74 appearances. He’s a workhorse for Bruce Bochy, and while he’s starting to get pricey for a non-closer, he still holds plenty of value and could be a trade chip if the Giants once again fall out of contention.

Early in the season, Strickland looked headed for a much higher salary, but he punched a door, lost his ninth-inning job, and didn’t look anything like his old self once he returned. Strickland still is cheap for a proven reliever, but his second half was concerning, and a new regime may decide that Melancon, Watson, Dyson and Smith should be surrounded by relievers making the league minimum. 

Hernandez surprised with 15 homers, but his OPS dipped to .506 after the All-Star break. The Giants don’t have much outfield depth, though, and their starting center fielder — Steven Duggar — is coming off shoulder surgery. Bringing Hernandez back for one more year would be the wise move, and it seems the likely one.

On the infield, there is depth, and d’Arnaud’s spot on the 40-man roster will likely be needed for a free agent addition or player being protected from the Rule 5 Draft. 

Finally, there’s the biggest name. The Panik decision may be the most interesting one the Giants make this offseason. He’s a former All-Star and Gold Glove winner, but he had a down year and a new baseball ops leader won’t have any sort of history with Panik.

It’s very possible the Giants decide to look elsewhere at second base, and the difference between this $4.2 million projection and the annual salaries of some free agent options won’t be much. Panik spoke about the looming decision at the end of the regular season. 

Will Smith wins Giants' Willie Mac Award after Tommy John comeback

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Will Smith wins Giants' Willie Mac Award after Tommy John comeback

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sometimes the players who most inspire a clubhouse do so behind the scenes, and that was the case with the 2018 Giants.

Will Smith returned from Tommy John surgery in May, became the closer in July, and spent the rest of the summer dominating without much fanfare. On Friday, Smith's teammates showed their appreciation for his hard work. The left-hander is the winner of the Willie Mac Award, given annually to the team's most inspirational player, as voted on by players, coaches and support staff. 

“It’s really something special to me,” Smith said. “My teammates, I love those guys to death, they’re awesome and they got me through a tough time last year. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Smith, acquired by the Giants at the deadline in 2016, missed all of last season after having elbow reconstruction surgery. He returned better than ever. In 53 appearances, Smith has 14 saves, 70 strikeouts, a 0.88 WHIP and a 1.90 ERA that is the second-lowest among NL relievers. 

Smith has also been a mentor for young Giants pitchers, most notably rookie reliever Reyes Moronta, who has developed a close bond with the veteran reliever.