Before the 2012 season began, the Brewers accidentally ended up signing Japanese outfielder Nori Aoki. They had placed a bid on negotiating rights for him without having done any real scouting on the player. Ultimately though, they signed him to a very inexpensive 2 year deal plus an option. And much to the fanbase’s delight, Aoki turned out to be quite competent. Then, with the emergence of Khris Davis, Aoki was sent to the Royals after the 2013 season in exchange for LHP Will Smith.
I remember at the time the reactions were quite mixed. Smith had been developed by the Royals as a starting pitcher, but didn’t quite succeed in the role. He struggled enough that he was converted to relief during the 2013 season. So no one was entirely certain what to expect. More than that though, Aoki was a fan favorite and people were upset to see him gone. Of course this was before people got to properly know Will Smith.
His first season with the Brewers was a successful one. He logged a mediocre 3.70 ERA. But his 3.25 FIP was much better. And his 30.1 K% put him in the top 25 in all of baseball among qualified relievers. Needless to say, when he improved on pretty much everything the following season, fans were excited. His 34.5 K% was the 7th best mark by a qualified reliever in 2015. It seemed like the only thing keeping Will Smith out of the conversation for one of the best relievers in baseball was name recognition—as ironic as that seems.
The 2016 season was shaping up to be a monumental one his the young man’s career. Unfortunately a knee injury in spring training almost completely derailed that. Smith tore a ligament in his knee and didn’t pitch until June 2nd. He was lucky not to miss the entire season, but he did lose his chance at the closer’s role. He also took a while to return to his old self, something which he hasn’t quite done entirely yet. With the Brewers he only struck out 23.9% of batters (a far cry from the 30+ from the previous two seasons) and logged a 3.68 ERA and 4.27 FIP.
It was for this reason some feared the Brewers may not fetch a fair price should they look to move him by the trade deadline—which is exactly what they did do. In return for the lefty reliever the Brewers received 26 year old catcher Andrew Susac and righty pitching prospect Phil Bickford. The former while not technically a prospect any longer was previously a Top 100 talent as recently as 2015. And Bickford was the Giants No. 1 draft pick last year, ranking 65 on MLB Pipeline’s most recent global Top 100.
I think Bickford is going to get more notoriety because of his draft pedigree (18th overall in 2015) and his prospect ranking. But I’m more interested in Andrew Susac. The Brewers opened up a hole at catcher when they traded Jonathan Lucroy. Currently they have Martin Maldonado and Manny Pina at the major league level. But I’d be surprised if either of them earned the starting role for more than a month or two. And top catching prospect Jacob Nottingham is a couple years away. So it seems the job is likely going to Susac before long.
He had been hitting 273/343/455 with 8 HR for the Giants’ Triple A affiliate. There is 20 home run potential in that bat. And while he doesn’t exactly get glowing remarks on his defense—strong arm but poor results when throwing runners out—he’s not a liability behind the plate either. I’ve not found information on his pitch framing, so we’ll have to learn that as we go. But there appear to be the makings a league average, or slightly above, catcher. Think 2-3 wins. And the Brewers will have 5 full years of team control remaining after this season. Despite the fact that Susac was assigned to AAA, he’s major league ready. So even before we look at Bickford, this feels like a win for the Brewers to get 5 years of a 2 win, MLB-ready catcher for a very good reliever whose value may have dipped a bit.
Speaking of a reliever whose value may have dipped, that might just describe Phil Bickford. Coming into the 2014 draft there was a lot of buzz about his ability to hit the high 90’s with his fastball. Same going into the 2015 draft. But post-draft that velocity has abandoned him. Now he sits closer to the low to mid 90’s. He has a decent slider. But that’s pretty much it. I’ve not read anything encouraging about his change-up. I’ve read good and bad things about his command which makes me think opinions probably depend on the day one sees him pitch, which could say something in and of itself.
Without the big velocity and a third pitch it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Bickford is destined for the bullpen. However if he can regain some velocity and develop his changeup more, there’s still a chance he’s a mid-rotation starter. It’s not that uncommon for pitchers to struggle during their first exposure to professional baseball. It’s a big deal going from pitching once a week to once every five days. So maybe with more innings he can make those adjustments. It’s something we’ll have to monitor.
Regardless the lowered expectations for Phil Bickford, I’m still a fan of the Will Smith trade. I really like Andrew Susac and I think he’s got a very good chance to being a quality catcher for the Brewers for quite a while. He’ll never "replace" Lucroy. No one can do that. But having even just an average catcher is way more important to a rebuilding club than a reliever. So I call this trade a win. What do you think?
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs