Three titles later, Smith returns to KC -- and he brought friends, too

February 16th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When Will Smith was first at the Royals’ Spring Training complex in Surprise, Ariz., in 2011, the current clubhouse did not exist, as it was not renovated and expanded until '15.

Seven months after he'd been traded to the Royals from the Angels, Smith showed up to Spring Training with a BlackBerry before getting his first iPhone later in the spring. He was a 21-year-old Minor League starter and rooming in a nearby hotel with a young catching prospect named Salvador Perez. With only one TV in the room and no modern-day technology like iPads, the two alternated days in control of the remote. One night, they would watch Perez’s favorite Latin drama. The next night, Smith would turn on Family Guy.

Now, he returns as a reliever with three World Series titles to his name and a drive to bring the Royals back into contention.

“He’s a stabilizer,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “He’s a super competitive guy, a winner, somebody who wants nothing more than for the Royals to get back to winning ways. He has a tremendous amount of pride for this organization. And he’s somebody that has the belief that it’s going to happen.”

Smith, who joined the club on a one-year, $5 million deal, was the signing that kicked off Kansas City's busy week before Christmas, when they signed five free agents in the span of four days. When Royals officials left Nashville, Tenn., after the Winter Meetings in early December, they weren’t thrilled with the pace and price of the starting pitcher market. So, they turned to the relievers, hoping to find reliable veteran arms who could not only close games but also throw strikes and lead the young pitchers in the bullpen.

They sold Smith on their vision and gave him a chance to close games.

“You can see it going in the right direction,” Smith said. “We saw the core they have. I’ve always been a big believer of having that perfect mixture of young guys and veteran guys to kind of mesh everybody together. I think they did a great job of doing that. They just brought in good people, too.”

The night Smith agreed to his deal, he called reliever Chris Stratton, his teammate with the Rangers in 2023, and sold him on Kansas City. General manager J.J. Picollo also asked if Smith would reach out to Seth Lugo, the starter who the Royals zeroed in on from the start of the offseason.

Lugo and Smith texted back and forth one night as they put their kids to sleep -- easier to text during bedtime than call, Smith said.

“‘Hey man, let’s do this thing,’” Smith recalled telling Lugo. “‘We can change the culture here and do some cool things.’”

A few days later, Lugo was in. So was starter Michael Wacha, Lugo’s teammate on the Padres last year. So was outfielder Hunter Renfroe, Stratton’s teammate at Mississippi State.

It all started with Smith as the catalyst, and multiple players mentioned how their mindset around the Royals changed when they saw Smith was on board. He’s a respected player, and he made history last year after winning his third consecutive World Series with three different teams.

Only three days into Spring Training, it’s clear that Smith’s word and work carries weight in the Royals’ clubhouse. His locker is positioned next to relief prospect John McMillon (Royals No. 25), as well as position players Michael Massey and Bobby Witt Jr.

The left-hander has tried to meet as many players as he can, intent on learning names and stories so he can help his new teammates grow as much as possible. On Thursday, Smith was in the training room with Anthony Veneziano and Alec Marsh, who both picked Smith's brain on his journey and pitching process. On Friday, Smith and Wacha made it out to the backfields after their workouts to watch Cole Ragans and Brady Singer, among others, throw live BPs.

“We’re trying to make PFPs [pitchers fielding practice] as fun as we can,” Smith said. “As we start to whittle down the 26-man roster, it’s easier to have conversations about, ‘Hey, we’re about to go play 162 together, let’s find out what we need to do to make this thing work.’”

While they’re not young Minor Leaguers dreaming about the big leagues or sharing a room together now, Smith and Perez, now both World Series champions, are happy to be back together in Surprise again. Both have had successful careers and want to work together to get the Royals back on track.

“He’s a great guy and teammate,” Perez said. “It’s fun to have him back. We’ve got a lot of new arms now, and we’ve got a good chance [to win].”