After Friday, the clock may be ticking for KC Royals reliever Will Smith

The veteran reliever''s roster spot could be in peril.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For much of his 12-season big league career, Will Smith has been a closer, a short reliever accustomed to the pressures and rigors of pitching in tight situations on successive nights and days. But after how he looked and performed Friday night, don't count on seeing him at any time tonight when the KC Royals and Baltimore square off in the second game of their current three-contest series at Kauffman Stadium.

It was, to be sure, a thankfully short performance, one Smith and the Royals won't soon forget or easily dismiss as just one of those proverbial nights. Instead, the one inning manager Matt Quatraro chose to use him only increased concerns surrounding the veteran reliever the club signed to help stabilize its worrisome bullpen.

Will Smith put the KC Royals in danger Friday night

Kansas City beat the Orioles 9-4, but the victory, their ninth straight at The K, came in despite of Smith. The Royals had just scored five times in the sixth to take a comfortable 6-0 lead when Quatraro called on Smith to work the seventh.

The choice almost turned into a disaster the Royals couldn't afford. Although he had some trouble finding the zone, the Orioles handled Smith's pitches that hit it or came close — Cedric Mullins led off with a single to center, pinch-hitter Austin Hays followed with another single to center, and Jordan Westburg's single to left loaded the bases.

Smith provided some relief by inducing a pop-out from Ramón Urías for the first out and striking out Gunnar Henderson for the second, but failed miserably against 2023 All-Star and Silver Slugger winner Adley Rutschman, who slammed Smith's 1-1 fastball over the left field wall for a grand slam.

Fortunately, and with the bags finally empty, Smith retired former Royal Ryan O'Hearn to end the inning. But the damage was done, turning a relatively safe game into a much closer affair.

The Royals scored three runs of their own in their half of the inning to pick Smith up and sew up the win. That result doesn't, however, lessen concerns about him.

Will Smith's bad outing added to the doubts clouding his roster spot

It's early — the Royals have played only 20 games, and Smith's appeared in eight of them — but his painfully obvious struggles render him a rival of Hunter Renfroe, who's mired under the Mendoza Line with a .182 average, for the indignity of being the most disappointing of the big-name Kansas City newcomers expected to play major roles in the club's quest for significant improvement.

Including Friday's disturbing outing, opponents are ripping Smith at a .424 clip; he's been pounded for 11 runs (14.14 ERA) and 14 hits (two of them homers) in just seven innings, and his WHIP is 2.714. He's given up four runs twice, lost two times, and blown a save. Those are all unacceptable numbers that accurately reflect the quality of his early-season work and raise an important question.

How long will the Royals tolerate Smith's struggles?

Determining his Royal future is something the Royals will do without regard to fan sentiment. This is a notoriously forgiving club, one that too often errs on the side of patience when it probably shouldn't. But in the context of this season, general manager J.J. Picollo, the man most responsible for the roster, would be wise to pull triggers sooner than his club has in the past.

Why? Because this is a team admittedly removed from the process of "evaluation" it undertook last season and seemingly headed, with its 13-7 record, in the right direction. With continued good play and some luck, it's also a club that could contend for its first postseason berth since 2015. It's important, then, not to allow reluctance to make necessary moves imperil a decent season.

And the Royals have promising alternatives at Triple-A Omaha. Sam Long has 12 strikeouts and has given up only an unearned run in 7.1 innings; Will Klein, a potential big league closer in his own right who MLB Pipeline ranks as Kansas City's 18th-best prospect, has, like Long, yielded only an unearned run in seven outings; and Walter Pennington carries an eight-game 2.03 ERA into tonight's game against Nashville,

Smith might, of course, turn things around and become a reliable member of Quatraro's bullpen. Time will tell whether that happens, but don't be surprised if the Royals choose not to wait long for him to improve. His $5 million contract is one even the historically conservative Royals can afford to eat.

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