The Fresh Prince of Atlanta

George Bissell

The consensus preeminent relief pitcher available in free agency this offseason is officially off the open market. The Braves announced the signing of left-handed reliever Will Smith to a three-year, $39 million contract on Thursday afternoon. The deal also includes a 2023 club option for $13 million. According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, the fourth-year option includes a $1 million buyout. The 30-year-old southpaw, who blossomed into one of the most underrated relievers in the game over the last few years, posted a 2.76 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 96/21 K/BB ratio over 65 1/3 innings last year. He also converted 34 of 38 save opportunities in his final season with San Francisco.

Given the glacial pace at which free agency has unfolded in recent years, Smith’s abrupt signing at the onset of the process represents a stark departure from the broader league-wide trend we’ve grown accustomed to. The driving force behind that outlier event appears to be directly related to the Giants’ qualifying offer, according to Ken Rosenthal of MLB Network, who tweeted shortly after the signing was announced;  “Smith’s agent -- Jeff Berry of CAA -- effectively used the qualifying offer as leverage, telling interested teams he wanted a deal by today’s deadline or Smith would accept the one-year, $17.8M offer from the Giants. In the end, the Braves bit.”

The fantasy implications of the offseason’s first marquee free agent signing are fascinating from a short and long-term perspective. According to multiple reports, veteran stopper Mark Melancon will remain the Braves’ closer to open the 2020 campaign, even after the club inked Smith to a hefty multi-year contract. The 34-year-old right-hander shored up the Braves’ bullpen, which had been their Achilles heel for the overwhelming majority of last season -- converting all 11 of his save opportunities -- after being acquired from the Giants at the major-league trade deadline last July. He’s owed a whopping $14 million in the final year of his contract before hitting the free agent market next offseason. It appears that Smith will open next season in a versatile fireman-type role, operating in high-leverage situations and facing elite left-handed batters. The central question for fantasy owners, which will have a colossal impact on his fantasy value, is whether he’ll be relegated to that non-traditional role for the entire season. Even if Melancon retains the closing gig for the entire year, Smith’s solid ratios and elite strikeout rate will give him tangible valuable in deeper mixed leagues. He’ll be one of the most desirable closer handcuffs in fantasy drafts next spring and a popular mid-to-late round target in all formats.

It’s unclear how the Giants -- who will receive a compensatory second-round draft pick from Atlanta -- will fill the void left by Smith’s departure at the back of their bullpen. The most likely in-house candidates would be Shaun Anderson, Jandel Gustave or Tony Watson. It would be surprising to see them acquire a veteran option on the free agent market given their current trajectory towards a full-scale rebuild. However, they may be able to find a low-cost option and flip him for a draft pick or second-tier prospect package at the trade deadline. Fantasy owners in deeper mixed leagues should keep an eye on the roles entering spring training, but this could devolve into one of the most volatile pure committees in the game, especially with new manager Gabe Kapler at the helm. This quagmire looks like an obvious stay away for fantasy owners entering the 2020 campaign.

Abreu, Odorizzi Accept Qualifying Offers

Clearly, the hot stove has officially begun to heat up. However, two impending free agents are now off the market. White Sox’ first baseman Jose Abreu and Twins’ right-hander Jake Odorizzi were the only players to accept their $17.8 million qualifying offers by Thursday’s deadline. The following seven players -- Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna -- declined their qualifying offers on Thursday, which means that teams will have to forfeit second-round selections and $500,000 of their international bonus pool to sign them to contracts in free agency this offseason.

Despite his advancing age, Abreu remains one the most consistent power producers in the game. He led the American League with 123 RBI last season and has reached the lofty 30-homer, 100-RBI thresholds in four of the previous six seasons, dating back to his arrival in Chicago back in 2014. Yet, the market for aging power hitters, especially those who don’t play a premium defensive position (and are tied to draft pick compensation, thanks to a qualifying offer), has completely evaporated in recent years. Therefore, it isn’t a total shock that the 32-year-old first baseman elected to remain in the South Side for at least one additional season. According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the White Sox are reportedly still interested in signing their primary offensive catalyst to a multi-year deal.

It’s mildly perplexing there wasn’t more of a market for Odorizzi, who ultimately decided to remain in Minnesota rather than test the free agent waters. The 29-year-old right-hander was always considered the most likely player to accept his qualifying offer, as it seemed unlikely that he'd receive an offer close in terms of average annual value from another club; especially with draft-pick compensation tied to him and the plethora of elite options on the market this offseason. He recorded a pristine 3.51 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 178/53 K/BB ratio across 30 starts (159 innings) this past season. He’s been extremely durable, making at least 28 starts in six consecutive seasons, dating back to the 2014 campaign. He should operate at-or-near the top of the Twins’ rotation next season and be among the most highly-sought free agent starters next offseason.

Trout, Bellinger Garner MVP Honors

The Baseball Writers Association of America continued handing out hardware this week, announcing the 2019 American League and National League Most Valuable Player Award winners on Thursday evening. Angels' outfielder Mike Trout was named as the junior circuit recipient and Dodgers’ outfielder Cody Bellinger took home the honor on the senior circuit.

It is the third time Trout has won the prestigious award, also taking home the honor in 2014 and 2016 as well. He’s finished among the top five in the voting in each of the last eight seasons. The 28-year-old future Hall of Famer saw his extraordinary 2019 campaign cut short due to a season-ending foot injury in early September, but he still finished second in the American League in Wins Above Replacement (8.28 WAR). He recorded an extra-terrestrial .291/.438/.645 triple-slash line with a career-high 45 homers, 104 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 134 games. Astros’ third baseman Alex Bregman finished second and Athletics’ shortstop Marcus Semien finished third in the voting.

Bellinger managed to edge out reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich for the award, the first of his young career. The 24-year-old slugger evolved into an elite middle-of-the-order force, posting a sublime .305/.406/.629 triple-slash line with 47 homers, 115 RBI and 15 stolen bases, leading the Dodgers to the senior circuit’s best record (106-56) in 2019. He also led the National League in Wins Above Replacement (9.03 WAR). Yelich finished second in the balloting while Nationals’ third baseman Anthony Rendon finished third.

Verlander, deGrom Capture Cy Young Awards

The Baseball Writers Association of America announced the 2019 American League and National League Cy Young Award winners on Wednesday evening. Astros' right-hander Justin Verlander narrowly edged out teammate Gerrit Cole for the junior circuit honor, while Jacob deGrom was a nearly unanimous selection on the senior circuit.

The fact that the BBWAA selected Verlander over Cole, who recorded a major league-leading 326 strikeouts over 212 1/3 innings of work, was a mild surprise. The 36-year-old fireballer added to his Hall of Fame resume, capturing the award for the second time in his illustrious career. He took home the honor as a member of the Tigers back in 2011. He led the big leagues with 21 victories, 223 innings pitched and a microscopic 0.81 WHIP across 34 starts. He finished second in strikeouts (300) and fourth in ERA (2.58). He also threw his third-career no-hitter against the Blue Jays on September 2. Verlander received 17 first place votes and 13 second place votes, while Cole received 13 first place votes and 17 second place votes. Rays’ right-hander (and former Astros’ stalwart) Charlie Morton finished a distant third, followed by Indians’ righty Shane Bieber and Rangers’ righty Lance Lynn.

Meanwhile, deGrom received 29 of the 30 first place votes -- Dodgers’ southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu drawing the lone other first place vote -- to become just the 11th pitcher in major-league history to take home the award in back-to-back seasons. The 31-year-old righty posted a sparkling 2.43 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 255/44 K/BB ratio over 204 innings of work this season. Nationals’ righty Max Scherzer and Ryu tied for second place, while fellow Nationals’ righty Stephen Strasburg and Cardinals’ righty Jack Flaherty tied for fourth in the balloting.

 

American League Quick Hits: Twins signed chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine to contract extensions through the 2024 campaign … Scott Boras told reporters at the GM meetings in Arizona on Wednesday that the report that his client Gerrit Cole won't sign until after January was “inaccurate.” … Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Wednesday that the Rangers are making an "aggressive" push for free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson … Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported Wednesday that the Indians are “receiving inquiries” on young pitchers like Shane Bieger, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale … Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that the White Sox and Rangers are among the clubs to have expressed interest in free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna … Bryan Hoch of MLB.com reported Wednesday that the Yankees have "checked in" on free agent right-hander Zack Wheeler … Marly Rivera of ESPN reports that the Blue Jays have met with free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal … According to Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star, "signs continue to point" toward Alex Gordon re-signing with the Royals … Bo Bichette is no longer dealing with any concussion symptoms and is able to go through full offseason workouts … Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins confirmed Tuesday that his club has an interest in Japanese hitters Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Shogo Akiyama … Yankees general manager Brian Cashman indicated Tuesday that Miguel Andujar might switch positions next season … Red Sox released RHP Jake Cosart.

National League Quick Hits: Jon Heyman of MLB Network reports that the Nationals could be in on Gerrit Cole if they fail to re-sign Stephen Strasburg … Scott Boras -- the agent for Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant -- said that his client is open to discussing a long-term contract extension with the Cubs … Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman reiterated Wednesday that he expects left-hander Julio Urias to be in the team's rotation in 2020 … Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported earlier this week that the Padres will attempt to sign Fernando Tatis Jr. to a long-term contract extension … According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Phillies have checked in on free agent southpaw Madison Bumgarner … Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported Thursday that the Padres have also expressed interest in the free agent left-hander … Heyman also reported on Wednesday that the Dodgers have superstar free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon “on their radar.” … Jim Salisbury of NBC Philadelphia reported Wednesday that the Phillies have touched base with Scott Boras regarding free agent third baseman Mike Moustakas … Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the Dodgers are considering signing free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson … Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat reported Wednesday that Yadier Molina “may be seeking an extension to his contract.” … Phillies GM Matt Klentak indicated Thursday that Odubel Herrera, who received an 85-game domestic violence suspension last July, will have to compete for a spot on the club in spring training … Gordon Wittenmyer reported Wednesday that veteran right-handed reliever Brandon Morrow is interested in returning to the Cubs on a minor league deal.