Upstart Royals look to familiar face Will Smith for resurgence help

Will Smith returns to the Kansas City Royals, where his Major League Baseball journey began in 2012, bringing with him a wealth of experience and three consecutive World Series titles with different teams. (Photo by Reece Andrews/Cronkite News)

SURPRISE – As difficult as winning the World Series is as a player, Will Smith has made it look easy.

One of the game’s top left-handed relievers, Smith is the only player in the history of Major League Baseball to win a trio of titles in consecutive seasons while wearing a different uniform each time. Pitching crucial innings for the Atlanta Braves in 2021, Houston Astros in 2022 and Texas Rangers last year, Smith now brings his fierce competitive nature and devastating breaking stuff to the Midwest on a one-year deal in an attempt to spearhead a Kansas City Royal renaissance.

“We saw the kind of group with these guys here, the way they were trending up in the right direction,” Smith said. “JJ (Picollo) and the front office did a really good job of bringing really good veterans in to help mesh everything together.”

Few would believe Smith was serious about continuing his streak when he put pen to paper with Kansas City, which lost 106 games in 2023. However, the Royals’ structure of burgeoning young stars, combined with a collection of experienced contributors, helped draw him in.

Although Smith has had the knack for singling out future champions, World Series-caliber ball clubs aren’t built overnight. What the Rangers accomplished last fall, perfectly blending homegrown talent with a large sum of marquee acquisitions, is a relative outlier among recent championship teams in Houston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

The top of the baseball mountain is familiar yet far territory for the Royals. Last lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2015, Kansas City has yet to return to the postseason since snapping a 30-year championship drought in that magical run.

After nearly a decade of failing to regain those heights, a new era of Royals baseball has begun to emerge. Franchise pillar Bobby Witt Jr. will man shortstop for the next decade, showcasing his power and speed as one of the league’s top showmen. Witt will be joined by other high-promise talents Vinnie Pasquantino, MJ Melendez, Cole Ragans and Brady Singer, to round out what the organization believes to be a strong foundation alongside stalwart Salvador Perez.

To shore it up, the front office went to work assembling a group of quality veterans, having made names for themselves in the past, to attempt to emulate the Rangers’ approach.

Seth Lugo comes from San Diego as a converted starter after seven successful years as a bullpen regular with the Mets. Michael Wacha now dons royal blue and is entering his 12th year in the bigs, having pitched in the World Series with cross-state rival St. Louis when he first broke in. Hunter Renfroe played a feature role in playoff runs with Boston and Tampa Bay.

“They’ve done this for a long time, various places, number of years in the league,” second-year manager Matt Quatraro said of his new players. “We feel like we did a good job of bringing in not only great people but great players.”

While each brings their own track record to the meet, with the bling of Smith’s three World Series rings, his particular addition shines the brightest in a full-circle moment.

Breaking into the big leagues with Kansas City in 2012, Smith’s third spring training with the club is as similar as it was different 12 years ago. First coming up, Smith joined a group featuring future all-stars Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon, all with aspirations of leading a successful era of Royals baseball. That they did, but not in the way Smith would’ve thought.

After he was dealt away following the 2013 season, Smith watched from Milwaukee as his former teammates captured the 2015 World Series championship, with the lone teammate left from that run in Perez capturing MVP honors.

After stints with the Brewers and Giants, Smith forged his own winning legacy in championships with Atlanta, Houston and Texas. Now, a decade later, in his return to Kansas City, Smith once again slides into a strong core of youth, which turns to him in their goal to play for sold-out crowds in October.

“Overall presence that he brings, being a professional in every aspect, you can kind of see that just from afar,” infielder Mike Borsseau noted. “I’m excited to learn more about him, how he handles himself, and what he’s done to get to where he’s at in his career, and to be on the teams that have done what they have done in the past. I think a lot of guys are latching on to him, hearing what it takes to get to where we want to be.”

Even as a five-year big leaguer, Brosseau looks to Smith with keen eyes, hoping to join him in lifting a trophy after coming two games short with Tampa Bay in 2020.

“There’s a lot of guys on this team that I still look up to,” Brosseau said. “Will Smith doesn’t need any explanation, with what he’s done in his career. Can’t speak enough about his resumé.”

His reputation may precede him, but to Quatraro, Smith is a part of that group of veterans expected to carry the crown strictly by what he does on the mound.

“Expectation is for them to be themselves,” Quatraro said. “We don’t expect them to be anything more than who they are. By doing that, they’re going to lead through example.”

Although only in camp for a short time and having played for several different skippers, Smith has already conformed to his new manager’s views.

“I just try to be the same guy every day,” Smith said. “They can take what they want from it.”

With Smith as the headliner of the league’s fourth-most expensive free agent class, joining an exciting young core, hope is beginning to rear its head, as Fangraphs projects a 20-win jump from 2023 for the Royals. Even with that drastic improvement, 76 wins would presumably position Kansas City well outside of the playoff picture. Not unlike another overlooked franchise, Brosseau draws comparisons between these Royals and the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays, who stormed to an American League pennant despite the exact modest expectations, with their own mix of homegrown and honed-in players that brought Smith’s Rangers to the top last fall.

“It’s very similar (to Tampa Bay),” he said.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Scott Sandulli expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sandulli has interned as a staff writer for affiliates of Rivals and SB Nation