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Dodgers should extend Will Smith long-term

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Will Smith at Angel Stadium. July 16, 2022.
Will Smith at Angel Stadium. July 16, 2022.
Michael Elizondo/TrueBlueLA

For the better part of this offseason, I have put forth a singular idea —

That the 2022 Dodgers really blew it?

Okay, I have put forth two ideas —

That the proposed Dodgers Gondola is a really bad and stupid idea?

In any event, throughout this rapidly concluding offseason, I kept proposing to trade the Dodgers’ current catcher, Will Smith, to shore up perceived holes in the 2023 Dodgers. Now, an idea has formed that I do not like Will Smith and that I want him gone. This opinion could not be further from the truth.

Does no one remember how I gushed about the man during the lockout? If there were players I wanted gone from the Dodgers, their names were Pollock (2022), Bauer (2021 and 2022), and Hembree (2022 — he knows what he did). This feeling never extended to Smith.

The entire point of the exercise in trying to obtain Willy Adames and Brandon Woodruff or Bryan Reynolds was to deal from a position of strength (the depth of the Dodgers’ catching core, i.e. a belief in Diego Cartaya and now Dalton Rushing) and avoid a repeat of the legendary blunder of trading a future-first-ballot-Hall of Famer for Delino DeShields. It is not a perfect analogy.

On that note, it is worth remembering that the Dodgers really did value DeShields that highly at the time of the trade:

“I have a great deal of respect for Jody Reed,” Dodger General Manager Fred Claire said. “He played hard for us and he played well. As far as the negotiations, we had put forth our offer very early, before Jody really declared free agency. If he had said yes to our offer, we would not have traded for a second baseman.

“The point of all of this (the trade) was simply an opportunity to add a young player who we feel is one of the top young players in baseball.”

As we all know by now, Smith avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal for $5.25 million. Smith will not enter free agency until 2026, and I was going to write about how the Dodgers should take a page from the Atlanta playbook and try to extend Smith, but then Fabian Ardaya of The Atheltic beat me to it (paywalled).

Over six years (with an option), that [extension] could look something like this:

2023: $5.25 million

2024: $9.25 million

2025: $15.25 million

2026: $17.25 million

2027: $18.5 million

2028: $18.5 million

2029: $17.25 million club option ($2 million buyout)

That’s $84 million over those six years with an option to make seven years, $101.25 million. Factoring in the $2 million buyout, that’s $86 million — $13 million more guaranteed than [Atlanta catcher Sean] Murphy got in his deal.

The new money in the deal, factoring in his agreed-upon 2023 salary, is five years, $78.75 million with a club option to make it six years, $96 million. And in his would-be free agency years, he’d make $54.25 million over three years (an AAV of $18.1 million, which is higher than [St. Louis catcher Willson] Contreras’ $17.5 million) with a club option to make it four years, $71.5 million, with $56.25 million guaranteed.

Ardaya’s essay is well worth your time and his proposal to extend Smith is a good one to me. Usually, when someone beats me to the punch on a topic unless I have something to add, I let the essay go. But a couple of things happened that merited revisiting this topic.

First, Gavin Lux got hurt and we do not need to dwell on Young Master Lux’s season-ending injury. Second, old friend Keibert Ruiz was extended by the Nationals to the tune of $50 million over eight years. Jon Heyman of the New York Post has the details of Ruiz’s new deal:

There are no buyouts on the options. That structure takes the maximum value of Ruiz’s deal to ten years, $76 million if both club options are exercised.

Why write an appreciation of Will Smith now?

In essence with the Ardaya proposal and the Ruiz extension, we have a range of proposals to think about. The Dodgers need not buy out any of Smith’s free agent years, but they could and certainly should pay Smith more than Keibert Ruiz.

Smith could be extended through his remaining arbitration years on a model similar to Ruiz’s if the Dodgers somehow did not feel like taking a page from the Atlanta playbook to lock up Smith long-term.

As of right now, the Dodgers have just six players under contract (not counting pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible players) for 2024: Mookie Betts ($25 million), Freddie Freeman ($27 million), Chris Taylor ($13 million), Miguel Rojas ($5 million), Austin Barnes ($3.5 million), and Tony Gonsolin ($3.4 million). This summary does not include the club options that the team holds on Max Muncy ($10 million), Daniel Hudson ($6.5 million), and Alex Reyes ($3 million), nor the conditional option on Blake Treinen.

For the purposes of this discussion, we are going to ignore the annual question of whether Clayton Kershaw returns and what the Dodgers decide to do with pending-free agent Julio Urías. Considering that the 2024 competitive balance tax threshold is going to be $237 million, the Dodgers will likely be well under that threshold. Smith is blossoming into becoming one of the best offensive catchers in the sport, as Eric described in the last official 2022 year-in-review post:

In all, 111 of Smith’s 130 starts last season came either at cleanup or batting third for a Dodgers team that led the majors in runs scored. He hit .260/.343/.465 with 24 home runs, 26 doubles, and a 127 wRC+, leading all major league catchers with 87 runs batted in. Smith’s bat was so needed that he started 24 times as designated hitter, boosting his playing time to a career-high 578 plate appearances, second only to then-A’s workhorse Sean Murphy among major league catchers.

Smith was fairly consistent all year, with four months of an OPS of at least .810. His only real down month was May, when he hit .217/.327/.349, but followed that up with 43 extra-base hits over the final four months of the season. September (plus the first five days of October) was Smith’s only other month with an under-.800 OPS, but his .238/.304/.457 line was still above average, with five home runs, four doubles, and two triples.

Or put simply, in a weird quirk of baseball fate, I have been physically present for every one of Will Smith’s triples in his career except one. I did not make any of my suggestions lightly.

What about the depth of the catching core?

One might credibly ask if the Dodgers keep Smith would the retention just block Cartaya and/or Rushing? Again, it is worth pointing out that such a concern is not relevant this year, regardless of the progress made in the minors by Cartaya and Rushing. Secondly, it is worth pointing out that if Cartaya or Rushing comes knocking on the major league door, there is always the option to move Smith into the designated hitter role once J.D. Martinez departs or retires.

As pointed out above, Smith’s bat as a catcher is one of the best in the league. Barring something unexpected (massive injury, severe regression, etc.), Smith’s bat will likely provide him a lengthy runway to remain a regular in the Dodgers lineup for years to come.

However, the opportunity cost to act right now is lower. The Dodgers could choose to do nothing as to Smith and focus on Urías and Shohei Ohtani in the offseason. Frankly, no one would blame the team if that is the route it takes. But, as I have accurately pointed out as of late, there is a cost for a delay and if the Dodgers wait too long, they risk Smith being in the same position as Urías: on the precipice of hitting the open market.