How Will Smith’s Free Agency Could Lead to the Latest MLB Offseason Trend

In a similar start to last offseason, the Atlanta Braves jumped out early in the free agent market, signing relief pitcher Will Smith to a three-year, $40 million deal, which includes a club option for a fourth year with a $1 million buyout. Last year it was the additions of Josh Donaldson on a one-year, prove-it deal that worked out well for the Braves, as well as bringing back Brian McCann for his second duty with the team. 

With that said, the Braves’ aggressive approach to free agency, or the fact that the club filled a need by signing the best reliever available, wasn’t the biggest takeaway. Smith’s deal, which was first announced by the club, came with minutes to spare before the deadline to accept or reject the qualifying offer, something which Smith was considering. 

The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman both touched on how Smith’s representation used the qualifying offer and the deadline to their advantage. Basically what they said to teams was, “you give us the deal we are looking for now or we’ll take the qualifying offer and enter the market next season without the draft pick attached.”

Now, this scenario is generally for players who are on the fringe of whether to accept or decline, and it got me thinking: why hasn’t this been used before? 

This year, there were two players who accepted the qualifying offer, that being Jose Abreu and Jake Odorizzi. Since it’s inception, only eight of 90 have accepted the offer. Therefore, even players we might look back on saying they should’ve rolled the dice likely never applied the pressure that Smith’s agents put on the Braves. 

Abreu was more of a unique case because everyone expected he’d stay with the Chicago White Sox, and he was limited to a first base, designated hitter-type market, which historically never leads to big paydays. Carlos Santana did receive a lucrative, three-year, $60 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017. However he was shipped away a year later. 

It’s safe to say that Odorizzi had a career year in his debut season with the Minnesota Twins, posting a 131 ERA+ with 178 strikeouts in 159 innings. His performance and injury history certainly were reasons to enter the market and capitalize. Instead, Odorizzi, who found a home in Minnesota, will bet on himself. 

Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, who are both represented by agent Scott Boras, headline this year’s pitching class, but there’s a number of teams that need starters who will most likely shy away from the top of the market. 

Could Odorizzi’s camp have gotten in contact with teams like the San Diego Padres, Houston Astros, or Philadelphia Phillies to engage in these early discussions?

Players who bet on themselves should be applauded for believing in their talents, yet it seems that if they aren’t totally sure the deal they want is out there, and just because there’s no draft pick attached next year, the deal they covet will come when they are a year older. 

Perhaps some of that falls on the clubs for not making a strong enough push to acquire talent, where there’s examples throughout the league like the New York Yankees’ unwillingness to meet certain asking prices to acquire a starting pitcher that could get them over the hump. 

The Braves, who by the way do have a loaded farm system, were willing to sign Smith despite the draft pick — which marks the fourth reliever they’ve brought in over the past four months. The Phillies and Padres, who have underachieved in back-to-back seasons, should show the same type of urgency. 

In addition, Smith benefited from the fact that there weren’t a whole lot of alternatives for other teams if he decided to stay. Smith is coming off a career year where he earned his first All-Star Game appearance with a 13.2 K/9. Keeping the volatility rates of a reliever in mind, Smith maxed out his earnings, even though he didn’t endure a dragged out free agency. 

What at first seemed like a very simple concept has had to ruffle some feathers throughout the game. The signing and fit weren’t unexpected, however the timing adds a whole new wrinkle to the baseball offseason. It’s not a strategy that will work for everyone, but the way we’ve seen young players get extensions, further postponing their free agencies, it will definitely be a tactic agents use going forward.

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