Jerry Dipoto must be trying to wrap up a lot of business quickly so he can enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday. Just a day after swinging a trade for David Freese, Dipoto has made another notable acquisition by signing reliever Joe Smith to a three-year, $16 million contract.
As with the Freese deal, there are two very different ways to look at Dipoto's latest move. From a talent and baseball side, there is a lot to like here. Joe Smith is probably someone you have never heard of, and that is only partially because he has the most inconspicuous name one could possibly have. The rest of the reason is that he has been toiling away in middle relief for the Cleveland Indians the last four years. Nobody could blame you for not noticing him except for the fact that he has been quite good for the Tribe.
The sidearmer has very quietly been one of the top middle relievers in baseball the last three years, registering three straight seasons of sub-3.00 ERAs. He just isn't that flashy in the way he goes about it. His strikeout rate is average and his walk rate is ordinary. What he does very well though is use his deceptive delivery to generate weak contact and a bunch of groundballs. For his career, 57.2% of balls in play have been on the ground and his HR/9 is 0.64. He's also thrown 63 or more innings each of the last three years, will turn 30 before Opening Day and has not notable injury history.
In other words, he is exactly what the Angel bullpen needed. The incumbent crop of relievers were almost entirely power righties who struggled with command and the longball. They missed bats, but they were prone to big mistakes. Smith shakes all of that up. He isn't exactly a soft-tosser (89.6 MPH average fastball in 2013), but he isn't going to blow guys away. Instead, he throws hitters off balance and changes their eye level with his sidearm delivery. Imagine going from Smith and his sidearm sinker to Frieri and his blazing two-seamer the next. And really, you should, because Smith now figures to be the top right-handed setup man for the Halos. Smith is not just some specialist like a Chad Bradford. Unlike most sidearmers, he isn't all that vulnerable to opposite-handed hitting. His career wOBA against right-handers is .274 and against lefties it is only .314. That isn't great, but it shows he can hold his own.
With Smith now in the fold, the bullpen should be set. Frieri will close and Smith, Sean Burnett and Dane De La Rosa should get most of the work in front of him. That leaves one spot for newly acquired Fernando Salas (who should be a lock for a spot if only to justify trading for him), one spot for Joe Blanton (or a different long reliever if they cut Blanton loose) and then one spot that Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn, Corey Rasmus and everyone else will compete for. That is at least the makings of a pretty good bullpen, especially if Burnett comes back at full strength.
Now for the hard part. The contract itself. Three years, $16 million for a setup man is just a poor value. Front offices have wised up to the volatility of relievers in recent years and three-year contracts are not handed out as freely as they once were. Typically they only go to the best of the best. I like Smith, but he shouldn't qualify. The $16 million seems steep as well. On the open market one win of value equates to roughly $5 million. To make this contract worthwhile, Smith would have to accumulate 3 WAR over the next three years. He has totaled just 2.2 WAR over his six years in the majors. That isn't his fault though, he's been good. Middle relievers having seasons over 1.0 WAR just doesn't happen very much because of how little they really pitch in high leverage situations.
That being said, it is "only" $16 million over three years. That isn't a contract that is going to cause any real pain in the long run. Teams in the Angels' spending bracket can flush $16 million down the toilet without even thinking about it. What really concerns me though is that Dipoto was willing to give it out.
The last two offseasons Jerry Dipoto has been quite vocal about not being willing to give long-term contracts to relievers or to pay them several million dollars per year. That is why he decided to roll the dice on Ryan Madson instead of signing an actual healthy but expensive closer. Now though, Dipoto has thrown that philosophy out the door and willingly overpaid for Smith. This just a day after he gave up solid prospect in a trade to add a generic reliever in Fernando Salas.
What this appears to be is Dipoto caving into the pressure to keep his job. He's overpaying to make the team better in 2014 and more or less ignoring the future. That isn't even really his fault. Most any other person would behave the same way. The real issue is that Arte Moreno put him in this position by letting his job security remain a question for several weeks in the offseason and then not picking up his contract options. Dipoto is a lame duck GM, so it shouldn't be a big surprise he is behaving like one.
This only adds more intrigue to the moves he'll make after this. The lineup and bullpen are pretty much finished now. Dipoto is now free to head into the Winter Meetings to finally address the two massive opening in the starting rotation. The problem is that the Freese trade and Smith signing have used up a lot of resources and flexibility. What he has now is Howie Kendrick to trade and then the money freed up by moving his salary and maybe a few other million dollars. That's it, unless Moreno gives into Dipoto's own obvious desperation and approves an increased payroll and/or venturing into the luxury tax zone. That means either Jerry is going to deliver an underwhelming solution to the rotation due to resource constraint or a panicky solution that looks good in the short-term but further cripples the team in the long-term (hello, Matt Garza).
Everyone better buckle up. It hasn't even begun to get bumpy yet.