Smith, 29 in June, has had an up-and-down career. He was selected 11th overall by the Mets in 2013 and was often on top 100 prospect lists on his way up through the minors. But he didn’t hit the ground running in the majors. He got 332 plate appearances over 2017 and 2018 and hit 14 home runs, but he paired a 28.9% strikeout rate with a 5.4% walk rate. The result was a combined batting line of .210/.259/.406 and wRC+ of 78 in that time.
He finally clicked in 2019, getting his strikeout rate down to 22.3% and his walk rate up to 9.6%. He hit 11 home runs in 89 games for a .282/.355/.525 batting line and 134 wRC+. But it wasn’t all perfect, as he had to move from first base to left field thanks to the breakout of Pete Alonso. He also missed most of the second half due to a stress reaction in left foot. But he was healthy again in 2020, hitting .316/.377/.616 in that shortened season for a huge wRC+ of 166.
But he hasn’t been able to get anywhere near that output since. He hit just .233/.298/.345 over the next two seasons, wRC+ of 80, while dealing with injury challenges. He played through a partially-torn labrum in 2021 and then suffered a right ankle sprain in 2022.
He was non-tendered by the Mets and landed with the Nats on a one-year deal with a $2MM guarantee and $2MM of bonuses. For the rebuilding Nats club, it was hoped that a move from left field back to his natural first base position would help Smith get back on track and perhaps turn him into a trade candidate. But that didn’t exactly work out.
He stayed healthy enough to take 586 plate appearances over 153 games last year but had limited impact at the plate. His 15.5% strikeout rate was about seven percentage points lower than most of his previous career work, but he hit just 15 home runs for the year. He finished the season with a .254/.326/.366 line and wRC+ of 90. That’s not disastrous output but less than ideal for a first baseman, where a potent bat is generally the expectation.
Defensively, the move back to first was a success, as Smith earned five Defensive Runs Saved, one Out Above Average and a grade of 5.1 from Ultimate Zone Rating. But the Nats decided to move on nonetheless. They could have retained Smith via arbitration, with MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projecting a modest salary of $4.3MM, but Smith was non-tendered and sent back to the open market.
Perhaps he traded too much power for contact. As mentioned, his strikeout rate was abnormally low in 2023 compared to his previous work. Striking out less isn’t a bad thing, but his 86.3 mph average exit velocity was at least two miles below every other season of his career. Getting back to focusing on doing damage would perhaps lead to more punchouts but also more homers. So far this offseason, his market has been fairly quiet. He had reported interest from the Pirates, but that was before they signed Rowdy Tellez.
For the White Sox, they have Andrew Vaughn at first base and Eloy Jiménez likely in the designated hitter spot most of the time. Jimenez can play the outfield, as can Smith, but neither is strong out there on the grass. Jiménez has received some trade interest this offseason and could perhaps find himself on the move, or maybe the club is just eyeing Smith as a backup in the event of injury. Jiménez has dealt with various ailments throughout his career and hasn’t yet topped 122 games in a major league season.
Smith won’t command a huge salary. The Nats presumably called other clubs and tried to gauge trade interest before letting him go for nothing, meaning that no club around the league was willing to pay a few million to get Smith in November. That means the Sox could presumably sign him for a fairly modest fee, even if they only envision him as a bench bat or part-time player.
The club is doing a roster retool of sorts and should have plenty of money for such a move. Roster Resource estimates that their 2024 payroll is set to be $151MM. They had an Opening Day figure of $181MM last year and were at $193MM the year before that, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. If they pull the trigger on deals for rumored trade candidates like Jiménez or Dylan Cease, it would only drop them further from those numbers.