Smith signals 'huge step' for high-leverage depth in KC's bullpen

December 11th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- When was traded from Kansas City to Milwaukee on Dec. 5, 2013, he watched the Royals go to the World Series the next season, then win it all in 2015. He watched the parade from his home in Georgia. When Smith left Milwaukee for San Francisco in ‘16, the Brewers started to win more.

“I thought I was bad luck,” Smith said Monday. “But … that turned around.”

It sure did. Smith has been a member of each of the past three World Series winners: the 2021 Braves, the ‘22 Astros and this year’s Rangers. Smith became the first player in MLB history to be on the World Series roster with three different teams in three consecutive years and win it all each time.

While the Royals might not be World Series contenders following a 106-loss season, they’re hoping Smith helps them at least turn things around in 2024. Kansas City signed the lefty reliever to a one-year contract over the weekend, which was made official on Monday. Smith’s deal is worth $5 million, and he can earn up to $1 million in performance bonuses, a source told

To make room on the 40-man roster for Smith, the Royals designated right-handed pitcher Collin Snider for assignment.

“We have a long history with Will,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “… He’s got a history of finishing games, which was really important to us, going back to our end-of-season discussion about what we needed to do with this team, and it’s adding depth in the bullpen. Still trying to address the starting pitching, and hopefully adding to that as well. But this was a huge step for us.”

Smith, 34, made his debut with the Royals in 2012, making 16 starts, then moved to the bullpen in ‘13 before being traded to the Brewers for Nori Aoki that offseason. Smith has pitched for six teams in his 11-year career, with a 3.67 career ERA, 33 wins and 113 saves.

Smith owns a lifetime 2.91 ERA (seven earned runs in 21 2/3 innings) across 25 postseason outings, including four wins and six saves. He has a 3.38 ERA (two earned runs in 5 1/3 innings) in six World Series games.

It’s that kind of experience that the Royals hope rubs off on their own relievers. Kansas City’s bullpen ranked second-worst in ERA last season at 5.23. After trading away Aroldis Chapman and Scott Barlow last season, the Royals lacked high-leverage experience.

So they set out this winter to find stability in the bullpen -- specifically reliable relievers who can “compete in the strike zone,” Picollo said. Smith checks at least one box. The Royals view Smith as the leading candidate for the back end of the bullpen. Nick Anderson, whom they acquired in a trade with the Braves last month, along with right-handers James McArthur and Carlos Hernández also have potential to close games for Kansas City.

“Finishing games is definitely why I think Will was so attracted to us, and there’s opportunity here to do that,” Picollo said.

Smith was an All-Star in 2019 with the Giants and notched 37 saves in ‘21 with the Braves. He was traded to the Astros at the ‘22 Trade Deadline, posting a 3.27 ERA in 22 innings for Houston, and then signed with the Rangers ahead of last season. Across 57 1/3 innings with Texas, Smith posted a 4.40 ERA, and he struck out 55 while walking 17. His strikeout percentages -- 24.9% in ‘22 and 24.3% last season -- dropped significantly from the prime of his career, but his walk rate (7.9%) improved last year.

And his expected ERA (3.28) and FIP (3.36) suggest some unluckiness last season, although Smith won’t dwell on that.

“I’m not the biggest numbers guy in the world,” Smith said. “I’ve always said, ‘They don’t hand out W’s, you’ve got to earn them.’ That’s really the only number I care about.”

That mentality is also why the Royals saw Smith as a fit; not only are they looking for better performance in ‘24, but also to surround their young core with veteran voices who have won before. The Royals’ clubhouse is widely inexperienced aside from Salvador Perez and Jordan Lyles.

Smith was a rookie when he last sat in the Royals’ home clubhouse. His focus remains on winning, but now he’ll be able to help young teammates, just as Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and others helped him.

“We felt like we’re short and didn’t have the depth with guys like Will, who not only have won at the highest level, but have just gone through experiences in the game,” Picollo said. “When we bring those two worlds together, we’re going to have a better club. …

“I think [Smith is] going to help us believe in ourselves. When you have people who have done it at the highest level, it’s going to have an impact on others.”