Braves sign reliever Will Smith to three-year deal in first substantial move of MLB free agency

In the first surprise of the winter, the Atlanta Braves have agreed to terms with left-handed reliever Will Smith on a three-year contract worth $39 million, the club announced. The deal includes a $13 million club option for 2023 with a buyout worth $1 million, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Entering the offseason, we here at CBS Sports ranked Smith as the 17th-best free agent on the market (here’s the full top 50). Here’s what we wrote:

Smith might end up being the best reliever available. His free agency comes at a good time, as he saved 48 games over the previous two seasons — showing he’s more than capable of handling the ninth. The key to his success is his slider, as batters whiffed on nearly half the swings they took against the pitch. Smith doesn’t throw hard — well, not by today’s standards — but so long as he has his health and his breaking ball he should remain an effective late-inning reliever. 

Smith, 30, has reaffirmed his status as one of the better left-handed relievers in baseball since missing the 2017 season due to injury. Over the last two years he compiled 118 innings to go with a 2.66 ERA (151 ERA+) and 4.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As noted above, the key to his game is his trademark slider and he served as the San Francisco Giants closer during the 2019 season.

Smith, an All-Star in 2019, will assume late-inning duties for Atlanta, though the team still intends to use Mark Melancon as its closer, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The reigning National League East champions attempted to fix their sieve-like bullpen at last year’s deadline, acquiring Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Chris Martin through trades. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough. 

The Braves figure to remain active on the bullpen front as the winter burns on. It’s worth noting that Martin is a free agent and could, theoretically, return to Atlanta should the two sides find mutual ground. The Braves will also need to address third base and could add a veteran starting pitcher.

Because Smith was tendered the qualifying offer, and because the Braves are a revenue-sharing club, they’ll need sacrifice their third-highest draft pick as well as part of their international free-agent bonus pool. The Braves could recoup a draft pick if Josh Donaldson departs. Atlanta has been tied to a few other free agents who received the qualifying offer — Anthony Rendon and Madison Bumgarner — so the Braves might end up sacrificing additional picks and bonus-pool money to build a pennant contender.

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