Why Will Smith may be a tough trade deadline choice for the KC Royals

The club could have a dilemma on its hands.
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Back in April, after watching Will Smith come close to taking a seemingly in-the-bag win out of the bag against Baltimore, I wrote that the "clock may be ticking" on the reliever the KC Royals signed in December to bolster their questionable bullpen. What drove me to that conclusion so early in the season was how unsightly his pitching was that Kauffman Stadium night, and had too often been before it.

For those whose memory is clouded by how good these surprising Royals have been — they're 39-26 after beating Seattle Saturday — here's what happened against Baltimore April 19.

Smith took over in the seventh inning and quickly squandered a 6-0 lead. He allowed singles to the first three Orioles he faced and then, after somehow obtaining a pair of outs, coughed up a grand slam to Adley Rutschman, the talented young catcher who'd homered only once this year before Smith gifted him his second to draw Baltimore within two.

Fortunately, the Royals scored three runs in their half of the inning and won 9-4.

Those four runs Smith teamed up with Rutschman to hand the O's drove his ERA to 14.14, a mark rendered achievable by the seven runs he'd given opponents in five innings before that night; he'd also lost a game and blown a save. Bleak was how things looked for the veteran reliever who'd arrived in Kansas City after playing for three straight World Series champions.

But after what Smith's accomplished since that ugly night, the loud ticking of that clock I wrote about in April is pretty hard to hear.

Will Smith has been pitching quite well for the KC Royals

Smith's first assignment after giving up Rutschman's slam came two games later. With Baltimore leading by four, manager Matt Quatraro gave him the eighth and he retired the side in order. He's pitched 14 times since with nary a scratch — only Detroit has managed to score against him over that span and, after he threw another scoreless frame against Seattle Saturday, his ERA in that time is 1.42. He held opponents to a .179 average in May.

And Quatraro seems to trust Smith, with whom he replaced faltering Brady Singer in Cleveland Thursday. With two outs in the fourth and KC down 2-1, Singer had given up three straight singles and a run when Quatraro summoned Smith to kill the threat. Smith struck out Josh Naylor, then pitched a scoreless fifth; the short but effective stint kept the Royals in a game they eventually won 4-3.

Will Smith may be creating a pleasant predicament for Kansas City

The Royals will face a dilemma if they keep winning and Smith continues pitching like he has since late April –– if they're buyers as the July 30 trade deadline approaches, should they try to move Smith for stretch-run help, or keep him?

Both approaches make some sense.

Relievers are always in demand during baseball's midsummer trade frenzy; if Smith is still on the beam, KC general manager J.J. Picollo won't suffer from a lack of suitors, some of whom could offer something the Royals need in return. If the club feels good about fighting for a postseason spot with a bullpen sans Smith, dealing him might be wise, especially considering he's working with a one-year deal.

But as long as he's performing well, the Royals might choose to keep Smith. Although he's saved 12 games this season, James McArthur is still a bit rough around the edges — his 4.91 ERA , for example, remains too high for a closer — and he hasn't a single pitch of pennant, or even playoff spot, chase experience. John Schreiber has been good, but the club appears to prefer him in a setup role.

Smith, though, knows late-season pressure and, as his three World Series rings prove, the postseason itself. The young Royals could find his experience and savvy advantageous if they're in the hunt.

So Smith, perhaps close to forfeiting his roster spot in April, sizes up as a tough choice as the deal deadline nears.

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