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A new year means the start of spring training is only two months away. The current pecking order of the National League’s elite, starts with the L.A. Dodgers, who should be the favorites to repeat. But who is next in line to dethrone the champs? Before the Christmas Holidays, many, myself included, pegged the Atlanta Braves the team most likely to challenge the Dodgers for the National League Pennant.

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After all, this was the team that battled the Dodgers to seven games in last year’s National League Championship Series. It also returns the bulk of its team, including reigning MVP Freddie Freeman; though Marcell Ozuna remains a free agent. There was also the reality that the league is top heavy. After the Dodger and Braves, who else could pose a threat in 2021?

Well that question was answered during the holiday season, as the San Diego Padres made a couple of moves that could make them a legitimate threat to both the Braves and Dodgers.

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The very squad that competed against the Dodgers for three games in the Division Series last year made significant upgrades to its pitching staff.

Pitchers Yu Darvish and Blake Snell provide the Padres aces atop their starting rotation. Both have the experience to challenge the Braves and Dodgers lineups in a postseason series. Combine that with the exciting talent of Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Padres are built to win now. More importantly, they want to win now, as seen by these two offseason trades.

So where does that leave the Braves?

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Currently constructed, the Braves are and should be prohibitive favorites to repeat as N.L. East Division champs. They have added depth and veteran leadership to a starting pitching rotation that was already brimming with talent. The only question is the return of Mike Soroka from a torn Achilles. The Braves need the former ace to return to his pre-injury form.

But the Braves also need a bat to complement Freeman in the lineup. The drop-off could be significant if the Braves do not add another bat. That’s what made last year’s offense so dynamic. With Ronald Acuna Jr., Freeman and Ozuna, the Braves possessed one of the best top-3 hitters in any Major League lineup.

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Maybe the team’s biggest strength last year’s was its depth in the bullpen. But that depth has been depleted some. As of now, closer Mark Melancon and Shane Greene are still available as free agents. While Chris Martin or Will Smith can certainly serve the ninth-inning role, it would behoove the Braves to add a reliable arm or two.

While the Dodgers remain the Braves’ primary challenger to a World Series berth, the Padres’ recent upgrades can not be overlooked. Like the Braves, they are young, talented and hungry for postseason success.

So, your move, Atlanta.

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A closer look at Smith’s pitch tracking shows the average velocity of his fastball and slider were identical to his 2019 numbers. The difference came in his slider’s movement profile, which was very generic in 2020. Compare between 2019 and 2020, with 2019 on the left and 2020 on the right:

The change is not dramatic, but seems to be localized to his slider, which lost two inches of movement on both axes. (By comparison, neither his fastball nor curve lost noticeable movement on both axes.) Smith has always used his sweeping slider to his advantage, and the relative lack of sweep could have been a problem.

Slider location was another struggle for Smith. In 2019, he mostly pounded the same corner with it, going down-and-in to righties and down-and-away to lefties. In 2020, he likely intended to do the same, but his location was off, meaning pitches were either not close enough to draw offers or hanging over the plate. Again, 2019 is on the left, and 2020 is on the right:

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Opponents hit just .124 with an expected batting average of average of .134 against Smith’s slider in 2019. Additionally they slugged .240 with an expected slugging percentage of .231. The xwOBA against the pitch was .183, which is incredibly good. Fast forward to 2020 and opponents hit .263 with an expected mark of .266. However, they slugged .737 with an expected slugging percentage of .642. The xwOBA against the pitch was .350, which is very poor for a slider and actually worse than what Smith’s fastball allowed over the shortened season.

We are talking about a very small sample size so keep that in mind, but Smith’s slider did not move as much in 2020, it was placed much less effectively, and altogether, it got hit very hard.

So what should we expect from Smith in 2021? It is not unreasonable to expect a bounce back who will hopefully be healthy and get a more normal Spring Training even if the regular season is delayed. Steamer projects Smith to be worth 0.6 fWAR while posting a 3.69 ERA and a 3.79 FIP in 63 innings. ZiPS has Smith pegged for a 3.40 ERA/FIP and an ERA- of 75. ZiPS also has his K-rate jumping back up to 12.9 which would be a welcome sight. Both of these projections essentially see Smith as a quite-good-but-not-great reliever, somewhere around the 80th-90th percentile.

Will Smith Projections
System Innings K/9 ERA FIP ERA- fWAR
2020 18.0 10.13 4.50 7.38 99 -0.6
Steamer 63.0 10.88 3.69 3.79 0.6
ZiPS 50.3 12.90 3.40 3.40 75 0.9
It was easy to forget that Smith’s season got derailed and then he was forced to try and ramp himself up without real games at the alternate site. Brian Snitker was recently asked about his bullpen and he said that he felt like he had four different players that could close games. Smith is part of that group along with Chris Martin, A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek. How the Braves feel about Smith may determine how hard they pursue a veteran addition to the bullpen. At any rate, he is going to be expected to play a much bigger part in 2021. Hopefully he is able to put his 2020 behind him and give the Braves whatever they were looking for when they handed him a sizable deal a year ago.

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