St. Louis Cardinals watch competition snap up top relief

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Will Smith #13 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Colorado Rockies during the ninth inning at AT&T Park on September 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Colorado Rockies 3-0. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Will Smith #13 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Colorado Rockies during the ninth inning at AT&T Park on September 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Colorado Rockies 3-0. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images) /
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San Francisco Giant Will Smith was one of the top closers in the league in 2019. He was a free agent but will not be coming to the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Atlanta Braves have signed free agent reliever Will Smith in the first major free-agent signing of the off-season. The price-tag: $39 million over three years. Smith was arguably the best reliever available in free agency and may have been of interest to the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Braves say Mark Melancon will still be the team’s ninth-inning guy.

That’s right, the Braves now have a guy with 48 saves the last two years, who went to All-Star game in 2019, as their eighth inning guy. Smith was 6-0 with a tight 2.76 ERA and was third in the NL in saves for a sub-.500 Giants team.

In sharp contrast, the Cardinals, who will be missing Jordan Hicks for “at least half” of 2020 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, are sitting on their hands. If the Redbirds are going to add a game-changing reliever to the bullpen it will have to be by trade now inasmuch as Smith and Aroldis Chapman (who re-upped with the New York Yankees), have been taken off the free-agent game-board before November was even half-over.

HOUSTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 13: Aroldis Chapman #54 of the New York Yankees pitches during the ninth inning against the Houston Astros in game two of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 13, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 13: Aroldis Chapman #54 of the New York Yankees pitches during the ninth inning against the Houston Astros in game two of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 13, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

Part of the Cardinals’ reluctance to shell out appears to stem from their recent checkered history with landing veteran relievers whose abilities aren’t a total mirage. Brett Cecil, Greg Holland, Dominic Leone, Jordan Walden and Luke Gregerson come immediately to mind. Even Andrew Miller’s first of two years with the team has been less of a success than management had bargained for.

But it is less clear what trade chips the Cardinals would be willing to use in order to land a durable reliever… even if it were just for a one-year loan to fill the gap left by Hicks. Outfielders? No. The Cardinals have said that they are inclined to simply let the outfield competition play out to the finish in 2020. They are gun-shy of trading another “surplus” outfielder like Tommy Pham or Oscar Mercado.

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Likewise, to the extent that there are any trade chips, there are other needs that present themselves, such as more offense from wherever they can get it, and a starter to take the place of the most-likely departing Michael Wacha and as insurance in case the newly-resigned 38-yo veteran Adam Wainwright‘s tank finally runs empty.

The Cardinals NL playoff competition featured such big-name relievers as the Braves’ Melancon, the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen, the Brewers’ Josh Hader, and the Nationals’ Sean Doolittle and the Daniel Hudson. By contrast, the Cardinals bullpen for the foreseeable future will be relatively “no-name.”

For now, John Brebbia, Giovanny Gallegos, Tyler WebbMiller and Ryan Helsley (3.8 2019 bWAR combined) are the only members of the bullpen whose names are written in ink for 2019, though help can come from the starter-ranks of Carlos Martinez and Daniel Ponce de Leon.

Next. Should Yadier Molina be extended past 2020?. dark

The news of Will Smith’s signing by the out-for-revenge Braves may not be good news for Cardinals fans. But if the Cardinals bullpen can exhibit another year of growth – and Hicks can come back sooner rather than later – the front office will enjoy putting the $39 million to better – and less apparently risky – use.

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