Ever since the Royals' three-headed monster helped Kansas City march through the playoffs in 2014, the baseball world has been in a frenzy to copy their model. The Yankees have perhaps the most elite trio of relievers ever assembled, which should allow them to utilize their bullpen in a way previously unseen. No longer are relievers the forgotten men of baseball and simply referred to as failed starters. Now they're truly appreciated, and while closers are still more highly valued in the public eye, middle relievers are finally getting their due.
As a result of this increased importance on the bullpen, not only are relievers getting more money in free agency, but they're also starting to bring back impressive trade packages when they're moved. In just this offseason, we've seen two pitchers, Craig Kimbrel and Ken Giles, get traded for a significant amount of talent. With the Brewers in full rebuilding mode, there's no way that David Stearns hasn't noticed.
Will Smith broke out in 2013 in 33.1 innings with the Royals, but he was later traded to the Brewers for Nori Aoki. In the two years since, Smith has proven to be one of the best relievers in baseball and undoubtedly holds enough value to help the Brewers increase the strength of their farm system.
The Kimbrel Trade
One of the first major moves that occurred this offseason was the trade between San Diego and Boston. Since Kimbrel's debut in 2010, he's been unequivocally fantastic. His career K/9 is 14.55, and his ERA and FIP are both pristine at 1.63 and 1.72, respectively. As a result, Dave Dombrowski had to part with Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asuaje, and Logan Allen.
Margot and Guerra were the big names of this trade. The former has a future value (FV) of 55 by FanGraphs' estimations, while the latter has an FV of 40 but is still only 20 years old and began to show some power last season. Asuaje is also projected for an FV of 40, but he has yet to progress beyond AA and is already 24 years old. At this time, it's too early to know what Allen's future will look like, as he's only 18 years old, but he posted some great numbers in his first season of pro ball. Between the rookie league and Low-A, he finished with an ERA of 1.59 in 28.1 innings while striking out 29 and walking just one.
The Red Sox now have Kimbrel for three years (assuming his 2018 option is picked up), but they had to part with four prospects in the process. While many were shocked at how much Boston had to give up, this trade set the market price for relievers, and we've already seen the Astros deal with its consequences.
The Giles Trade
While the Phillies didn't set out to trade Giles this offseason, Matt Klentak, their new GM, said that they would "try to be opportunistic" and would try "not to operate in absolutes." Giles would have helped Philadelphia secure a few more wins for the 2016 season, but with a rebuild underway, it simply didn't make much sense to hold on to a high-leverage reliever. As a result, when the Astros ultimately offered a package of Vincent Velasquez, Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Harold Arauz, the Phillies couldn't say no.
In a single trade, the Phillies turned a reliever and Jonathan Arauz (a 16-year old minor league infielder) into four starting pitchers and a reliever in the Arauz they got back from Houston (no relation). While some of the acquired talent could ultimately find themselves in the bullpen, like Appel or Oberholtzer, this was a fantastic haul for the Phillies. Velasquez should slot into their starting rotation immediately while Appel (the 2013 first overall pick) and Eshelman (the fourth pick in the 2nd round in the 2015 draft) continue to work in the minor leagues.
Suddenly the Phillies have a solid core of controllable starters, comprised of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and now Velasquez. Klentak turned five years of Giles into four starting pitchers and one reliever. While we can't predict the future, and how Philadelphia's new players will perform in their system, this was a trade that couldn't be turned down.
A hypothetical Smith trade
Trying to pick where Smith would get traded to and what prospects would come back to Milwaukee would be a pointless exercise. It's impossible to know which teams will be in the market for a high-leverage reliever come July. Realistically, every team that's close to a Wild Card spot should have interest in a pitcher like Smith. Instead, we can try and figure out what a trade package would have to resemble based off the Kimbrel and Giles trades.
Smith has four years of team control left, which puts him squarely between Kimbrel and Giles. Statistically, they're fairly similar across the board.
Smith's strikeout rate was better than Giles' but lower than Kimbrel's; his walk rate was the highest of all three, but not by much; his home run rate was better than Kimbrel's but not as elite as Giles'; his ERA was the highest but his FIP was better than Kimbrel's; his SIERA and ERA- were once again better than Kimbrel's but not quite as low as Giles'; and while he had the lowest fWAR, he was just 0.1 behind Kimbrel, which is essentially meaningless.
Thanks to an ugly 2012 campaign with the Royals, Smith's career totals are warped. He threw 89.2 innings that year as a starter and finished with an ERA of 5.32 and an FIP of 4.66. If we ignore that year (which I realize is a cardinal sin to some), his career totals begin to resemble the pitcher that Smith is now: a high-leverage relief option. In 162.1 innings since the start of the 2013 season, Smith has a K/9 of 12.20, a BB/9 of 3.44, a HR/9 of 0.94, and an ERA and FIP of 3.22 and 3.00, respectively.
While he doesn't have the name recognition of Kimbrel or Giles, front offices surely understand the value of Smith. Not only does he have the seventh-best K/9 among all qualified relievers since 2013, but he also has the 27th-best FIP, a fastball that can reach 98 MPH, and he happens to be left-handed, which further boosts his value.
The Phillies understood that having Giles would be nice, but it ultimately didn't make sense to hold on to a high-leverage reliever that could bring back a rich prospect package. Trading Smith right now could very well lead to a similar return for the Brewers, but with spring training just underway, there's less pressure for a team to add a shutdown reliever.
Instead, Stearns should wait until the trade deadline and hope that Smith doesn't get injured or get a visit from the regression monster. With an elite strikeout rate, a mid-90's fastball, and all of it coming from the left side, there could be quite the bidding war for Smith in July. Considering that Giles was worth five players and Kimbrel was worth four, the Brewers should be able to net a similar return - at least two players with high upsides and high ceilings with a couple other prospects that are better than average. Milwaukee has a chance to fuel their rebuild by trading Smith, and if given the opportunity, they must take advantage of it.
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Matt Goldman is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score & MLB Daily Dish. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.