The Red Sox are toast this season, and it’s time to look forward to 2016. This has probably been true for a couple of weeks now, but they went out and gave us some false hope leading up to the All-Star break. After the disaster that was this past weekend, it’s become abundantly clear that hopes for contention are futile.
That puts the Red Sox in an odd situation leading up to the trade deadline. They clearly won’t be going after rentals like Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija, but they also won’t be straight-up sellers like the Phillies or Reds. Now is as good a time as any to start rebuilding this roster for a bounce-back 2016.
I’ve spoken a lot about Boston's need to reshape their bullpen moving forward, as there aren’t a whole lot of trustworthy pieces in place beyond Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, both of whom are trade candidates in their own right. In fact, I’ve already made the case they should be looking at Jonathan Papelbon. That came at a more optimistic time, however, and it’d be more prudent to look for a younger asset.
Specifically, their bullpen can really use a young left-handed weapon. Tommy Layne has performed admirably in 2015 and could be a useful piece moving forward, but they need a stronger set-up option in the form of a southpaw. That very piece exists in Milwaukee, and he shares a name with the star of such classics as I, Robot and Wild Wild West.
Will Smith came up through the Royals’ system as a starter, but was converted to a reliever with the Brewers and has flourished in the role. While the comparison is somewhat unfair to Smith, he’s something of a poor man’s Andrew Miller. The former seventh round pick has tossed 100-2/3 innings across 122 appearances for Milwaukee, and has put up very impressive numbers in that time. To wit, the 25-year-old has pitched to a 3.04 ERA (126 ERA+) with a 2.83 FIP over the last two years. Like many starters-turned-relievers before him, Smith has watched his strikeout rate skyrocket in shorter stints, setting down nearly a third of his opponents by way of the K this season.
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The obvious question mark that comes up for someone like him would be his splits. If you’re acquiring someone to be a late-inning reliever, the preference would clearly be that said late-inning reliever can get outs against batters of either handedness. Luckily, Smith fits that criterion. Over his career, right-handed batters own a .770 OPS versus a .707 mark from left-handed hitters. Oddly enough, he’s been dominant against righties in 2015 to the tune of a .396 OPS, though that’s likely small sample size noise. He’s clearly a better option against lefties, but the Red Sox wouldn’t have to be worried about sending him out against a righty sandwiched between two lefties.
So, why would Milwaukee want to sell that kind of piece? That’s a good question! Common sense would say they’d have to be blown away to deal him, especially considering he’s still very cheap and won’t be arbitration eligible until after next season. With that being said, the Brewers find themselves in clear rebuild mode like the aforementioned Reds and Phillies. To make matters worse, they are in desperate need to restock their farm system. If they don’t plan on contending for the next few years, a reliever of Smith’s caliber is much more valuable as a trade chip than it would be on their own team. This is especially true since they also have Corey Knebel, another highly regarded reliever who is likely their closer of the future. There’s enough reason to hold on to him, but the Red Sox have enough reason to pay the price it would take to pry him from Milwaukee.
Now, I hate trying to come up with trade packages, so I’m not going to attempt to come up with anything specific. Instead, I’ll throw out the more general tier of prospects from which they would dip from to acquire someone like Smith. Since we’re talking about a non-elite reliever here, they shouldn’t have to dip into their top tier. Guys like Rafael Devers and Manuel Margot aren’t going anywhere for Smith. The package would likely start with someone from the next tier, someone in the 9-17 range. Someone like Trey Ball, Michael Chavis, Sam Travis, Wendel Rijo or Ty Buttrey could get talks started.
On top of that, it’d behoove the Red Sox to throw in a declining asset that’s close to major-league ready, like a Garin Cecchini or Jackie Bradley. Obviously, there is a relatively large discrepancy in value between some of those names, so the combined package would differ, but prospects from that tier should at least get them close. Throwing in a 30-40 range prospect to top it off would probably be as far as I’d go. There’s some serious upside in that group of names, but Smith could be someone to lock up a late-inning slot in the bullpen for the next five years, and that kind of security costs a second-tier names plus some, especially when his current team doesn’t need to trade him
The Red Sox need to start retooling for 2016 in the coming weeks, and the easiest place to improve at this time of the year is in the bullpen. Instead of looking at the aging closers around the league, they should try to entice the rebuilding Brewers to relinquish Will Smith. He’d not only solve the lack of depth in the later innings, but he’d also fill up the left-handed hole in the relief corps. It may cost more than what many would be willing to part with for a reliever, but this is an outstanding young arm who solves a problem for the foreseeable future.