The Brewers haven't given a player an extension since Jonathan Lucroy signed his in March of 2012. They tried discussing an extension with Jean Segura but he declined which as it turns out was probably a good thing for Milwaukee. They have continued to bring back Francisco Rodriguez but he kept signing free agent contracts. So the question is will that change this year?
The Brewers do have a number of players that are intriguing extension options. One such player is lefty reliever Will Smith. The Brewers acquired Smith in the 2013-2014 offseason in exchange for fan favorite outfielder Nori Aoki. It was something of a hard pill to swallow for some but since becoming a Brewer Will Smith has converted to a valuable reliever.
In his first season with the Brewers, Smith made 78 appearances throwing 65.2 innings. He struck out 30.1% of batters faced. That was the 24th best mark among reliever in 2014. He ended the season with a mediocre 3.70 ERA but a better 3.25 FIP.
It was a good first season with the Crew. It was also the first time in his career he pitched as a full time relievers. The hope was he could improve on that season as he became more comfortable with his new role. That hope was realized in 2015.
Here's a comparison of his 2014 and 2015 season:
It's impressive that he increased his strike out rate. That 34.5 K% was the 7th best among relievers in 2015. He went from borderline elite strike out ability to unquestionably elite. And as you can see Will Smith improved across the board. One wonders if he can improve anymore.
The question isn't one I can answer with any certainty. But there are two things I will note. Will Smith was actually quite terrible versus left-handed hitters in 2015. That is not normal for him. Throughout his career he absolutely dominated same handed hitting. So it's a good bet that his struggles against them won't continue.
The next thing to note is that he reversed his trends vs right handed hitting in 2015. Throughout his career he's been somewhat mediocre vs RHH leading to legitimate questions as to whether he would end up as a lefty specialist. So did he make real improvement vs RHH or was this just a statistical anomaly like his struggles vs LHH?
I don't know the answer but his ability to handle right-handed hitting is going to be what separates him from being a pretty decent reliever and legitimate quality high leverage reliever. I am confident that Will Smith will at least be a good pitcher for years to come. So do the Brewers extend him now and try to buy out some free agent years while also getting some cost certainty?
Right now the Brewers have 4 years of team control over Will Smith and achieved Super Two status giving him four years of arbitration. He is about to enter his first arbitration season. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to earn $1.2 million in 2016. That's not expensive by any calculation but that number will only rise through his second through fourth arbitration years. Even if he's just a decent reliever in 2016 his salary will double in 2017. If he takes another step forward he could push his salary over $3 million. That would probably give him the potential to earn between $5-6 million in 2018 and probably over $7 million in his fourth and final year of arbitration. Then he would hit free agency.
By locking him up now, even after his best season, the Brewers could shave a couple million off his total earnings from 2016-2018 and keep him around for another season or two. It's hard to say what an extension for Smith would look like because the Brewers will have their own salary projections and performance projections for him. But we can start by taking MLBTR's 2016 projection.
Let's assume $1.2 M is accurate. Then we'll double that for 2017: $2.4M. Assuming he continues performing at a high level it will more than double for his third and final arb year. So I'll just guess $5.5 M. Steve Chisek is a comparable lefty reliever entering his third arb season. He was projected to make $7.1 M. However he was the Marlins closer for a long time and saves get you more money in arbitration. So I think that $5.5 M is a reasonable guess. But I could see Smith making around that $7.1 M in his fourth arb year.
The Brewers are going to want to shave off some money in those years. So let's say it would look something like $1M in 2016, $2M in 2017, $4.5M in 2018, and $7M in 2019. Will Smith potentially makes a bit less in those four years but he gets security and the Brewers get cost certainty. Now we get to his free agent years.
Neither Will Smith nor the Brewers are going to want to buy out more than 1 or 2 years of his free agency. The Brewers probably don't want to get locked into any reliever for more than five years. Will Smith will want to enter free agency when he's young enough to still get a big payday. So I propose buying out one year of free agency at $9 million with a team option for $9M and a $0.5M buyout.
That would be a 5 year deal worth $25 million guaranteed. The option bumps the total up to 6 years and $33.5 M. That's a solid deal for young reliever. Will Smith gets the security of a guaranteed roster spot not to mention the guaranteed money. The Brewers get cost certainty. That's a valuable thing especially when you're starting to build a competitive team which they will around the 2017-2018 time frame.
While their discount through Smith's arbitration years is minimal they'd be getting a huge discount for his free agent years. Assuming Smith continues to be effective he would get way more than $9M in free agency if not in annual average value then surely in years. He'd be just 29 at this point and would be in line for at least a 3/30 contract if not a good deal better.
This would also allow the Brewers to move Will Smith to the closer role if/when that becomes available. Since they don't have to worry about saves artificially inflating Smith's earning potential in arbitration it becomes a real option. The only obstacle would be his performance.
The risk is of course that Will Smith doesn't continue to be a quality reliever. It's a common refrain that relievers are fungible assets. While that's mostly true I think it glosses over the fact that there absolutely are different tiers among relievers. And generally speaking some relievers can be consistently depended on for a certain level or range of performance. The problem here is that we really only have two seasons of information to go on when we try to decide if Will Smith is worth an extension.
Correction: The original version of this article contained incorrect information. Cot's listed him has having 3 years remaining before hitting free agency. But actually he has four and is Super Two giving him four total years of arbitration. Changes to the article were made where appropriate.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Contract details courtesy of Cot's Contracts