Despite the general feeling around this upcoming offseason being that things would be a little slow due to the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and baseball in general always having the potential to clam up during any given offseason, the Braves have gotten off to a quick start when it comes to making offseason additions. The Braves brought back Josh Tomlin on a one year deal worth $1M last week, and they’ve made another pitching addition this week. This time, they’ve signed Drew Smyly to a one-year, $11M contract.
It was a safe assumption that the Braves would be adding to their starting rotation in some way, shape, or form. I don’t think that before yesterday, anybody really had Drew Smyly on their radar. To be completely honest with you, it’s Drew Smyly. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s also not the type of big name that you see on a list and have any sort of exclamatory thoughts. So it was a tiny bit of a shock that the Braves brought him in, and did so to the tune of $11 million dollars. This is the payday that Smyly’s been working towards for his entire career as a baseball player and the Braves are going to be the team that gives it to him.
Once this was announced, the two initial questions I had were: “Why Drew Smyly?” and “What does this mean for the rest of the offseason?” It’s pretty easy to figure out the answer to the first question, and the second one requires a fair bit of speculation on my part. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the second part, but it shouldn’t take a large leap of faith to figure out why the Braves wanted him as a pitcher.
For starters, he’s coming off of a season that was on track for being either close to exceeding the best season of his career. That’s pretty impressive for a guy in his age-31 season who still dealt with injury issues during that 2020 season and is also coming off of Tommy John surgery that robbed him of his 2017 and 2018 seasons. It’s also encouraging that he appears to be ramping up when it comes to velocity, instead of ramping down. His average velocity on his fastball during 2020 was 93.9 mph, and it was 89.5 on his cutter and 80.2 on his curveball.
It would be easy to assume that his velocity was up because of the nature of the short season and he wasn’t going super-deep into games. The latter part is true — Smyly’s longest outing of 2020 was just 5.1 innings long, while he had eight such starts where he went at least 5.1 innings in 2019. With that being said, the intriguing part is that during those starts in 2019, his average fastball velocity was only 91.3 mph. He was also slower in 2019 when it came to his cutter (86.8 mph) and his curve (77.5 mph). If you want more on this, Jake Mailhot of FanGraphs goes even further in depth and I highly suggest that you check it out.
That uptick in velocity from 2020 to 2019 is probably what resulted in Smyly being able to reach back and hit levels that he had only approached back in the early stages of his career. He ended up finishing 2020 with an ERA- of 80 and a FIP- of 48, which is similar to how he finished his career-high 2.3 fWAR season of 2014 with an ERA- of 84 and his 2013 FIP- career-best FIP- of 58. The uptick in velocity basically helped Drew Smyly put it all together in order to have a pretty good 2020 season, and that velocity is also probably what put him squarely on this front office’s radar — even dating back to the 2019 offseason, apparently.
Alex Anthopoulos on the signing of Drew Smyly: "We looked at him even last offseason as well. When he came back from the finger injury, his last four outings were really strong. The curveball is a real weapon for him. In our minds its one of the better curveballs in the game"— 680 The Fan (@680TheFan) November 16, 2020
In addition to the Braves adding Smyly to the rotation as part of an upside play, they’re also doing so to give the absurdly-young core of the rotation yet another veteran arm to learn from. As Kyle Wright and Josh Tomlin will both tell you, there’s value in having veteran players come in to give the younger players some valuable advice going forward. If Smyly can play the role of being a veteran mentor while also managing to build on what was an encouraging 2020 season, then this is going to be another one of those one-year deals that the Braves end up hitting it big on.
That brings up the second issue: What does this signing indicate for the rest of the offseason? Is this a sign that Smyly is going to be the only “big” signing of this offseason? Cynically, it would be easy to take the position that the higher-ups would believe that Braves did perfectly fine with the roster that they had last season and all they need are only slight improvements here and there in order to stay at the same level that they’re at. For all we know, the annual dice roll of a baseball season could end up paying the ultimate dividends for the Braves next year even if they stick with (mostly) the same cast.
However, that’s a dangerous game to play. Even though the Braves are set up for success for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t take a lot to turn any particular season into a nightmare. The best way to ensure against that is to strengthen the squad, and while signings like Drew Smyly are nice, there’s definitely more that needs to be done. If we’re looking back on the offseason in March 2021 and this ended up being the biggest signing of the offseason, then everybody will have a right to feel disappointed.
So that’s why I’m hoping that this signing in particular is just part of the Braves’ offseason plans and not this front office’s crown jewel acquisition of the Hot Stove season. Fortunately, judging by the way Alex Anthopoulos was talking, this was more of a “depth” signing than a “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him” signing.
Anthopoulos: "We always would like to have as much depth as we can. What we're doing is more player specific than need specific. We have areas we'd like to address." #Braves— 680 The Fan (@680TheFan) November 16, 2020
If they know the “areas” that they’d “like to address,” then maybe that’s an indication that more is on the way. There’s still a big chance to help turn this team into one that can take the next step from the Championship Series to the World Series. The Braves can do it via trade or free agency, but either way it’s got to happen. With all of that being said, the Drew Smyly signing is a good first step forward. He’s going to come with some injury concerns, but the Braves are clearly excited about what he can bring to the plate in a best-case scenario and here’s hoping that he can take another step up as a pitcher.