If Joe Smith ever imagined what his final appearance as a Cleveland Indian might look like, he probably didn’t picture giving up the RBI-single that all-but guaranteed a Tampa Bay win in the Wild Card game.
Despite the disappointing ending to the reliever’s tenure in Cleveland, the Indians should consider re-signing Smith for 2014.
The team would be smart to offer Smith a conservative deal – something along the lines of two years and $8 or $9 million – that would be a moderate increase from his salary last year, but still less than what they would spend on someone, like Chris Perez, who has the “proven closer” tag. Smith is capable enough to close if the Indians choose to utilize him in that way, and if not, he’s still a highly-effective relief pitcher. Especially over the last three seasons, the team has relied on his ability to consistently get both left and right-handed batters out in some of the most high-leverage innings.
Smith made $3.15 million in 2013, which seems low compared to Perez’s $7.3 million – and Perez’s salary is only going to increase next season, despite his poor performance this year.
Offering two years at $9 million would be low-risk, especially considering his reliability.
Despite coming into spring training with an oblique injury, he still pitched 63 innings in 70 appearances throughout the year. It was the third straight season where he appeared in 70 or more games, logging 67 innings in each of the previous two years.
In 2009, Smith struggled to stay healthy, but they were isolated problems: an illness that cut into his spring training; subsequent arm injuries resulting from returning to the mound too soon; an off-the-field incident that required season-ending knee surgery. Ultimately, none of those issues are red flags about his health.
In addition to being reliable, Smith has quietly been one of the league’s best relievers since 2011. Over the past three seasons, he has compiled a 2.42 ERA with opponents batting just .218 against him, earning 62 holds in the process (the third-most in the major leagues, according to Fangraphs). In 197 innings during that span, he allowed just 60 runs and 159 hits, while striking out 152 batters.
In 2013, he faced 259 batters and allowed only 17 total runs. He struck out 20.9 percent of batters, which is slightly above major-league average. Although he does give up hits and walk batters, he is able to limit the hits to singles at an above-average rate. Extra-base hits accounted for just 22 percent of hits allowed by Smith – far below the league average of 33 percent.
Last year, Smith’s had a 3.70 xFIP compared to a 2.29 ERA. The difference primarily can be found in his walk rate, which has always been high – 8.9 percent in 2013 – and his left-on-base rate. It isn’t just that he got lucky last season, though. Throughout his career, his FIP has always been significantly higher than his ERA. He tends to allow a lot of traffic on the base paths, but has always been effective in stranding runners. Last year’s LOB% was the highest of his career, at 86.3 percent. While he can’t possibly be expected to continue to strand runners at that rate, he has been above-average in LOB% throughout his career.
At times, Smith has been the Indians’ best relief pitcher – especially in 2013 – but the team almost never used him in a closer role. He briefly occupied that title this season when the team had no other options, but even when Perez was officially removed from the role in September, Terry Francona did not hand the job to Smith.
If the Indians want to re-sign him for next year, his lack of closing experience might work in their favor. Of course, most teams’ front offices are well-run enough to see past the fact that despite having 439 games in his major-league career, Smith’s first (and only) saves came in 2013. But there are still some who will be reluctant to give a major contract to a seventh or eighth-inning set-up man, so it’s possible that Cleveland might be able to keep him without spending too much.
The Indians will have a large selection of young relievers to choose from next season. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw will likely vie for the closer role, and Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin might find themselves pitching out of the bullpen, depending on the Tribe’s off-season moves. Marc Rzepczynski will likely return, and in a best-case-scenario, Vinnie Pestano will return to his former dominant self. But securing the return of Smith would add stability to the bullpen and give Francona someone else to depend on in tight situations.