Smith sidelined by LCL tear in right knee

Left-hander was set to share closer duties with righty Jeffress

Smith sidelined by LCL tear in right knee

PHOENIX -- The simple act of removing his shoe will cost Brewers reliever Will Smith a significant chunk of what was supposed to be his first season getting save opportunities.

The Brewers lost half of their co-closer committee when the left-hander Smith learned he faces an extended absence with a torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. He was hurt in the most benign fashion; taking off his shoe following an outing in Minor League camp on Thursday.

Manager Craig Counsell indicated on Saturday that Smith should heal in time to pitch later this season, but the injury left Jeremy Jeffress to handle closer duties while Smith recovers. Smith is scheduled to consult in the coming days with the Brewers' head physician, Dr. William Raasch, to determine whether surgery is required.

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"It's sad, it's disappointing, that's for sure," said Smith, who had been in position to share closer duties with the right-handed Jeffress. "But I've got all the confidence in the world in J.J. and the rest of the bullpen. He was the first person I told [Friday] night."

Smith's timeline for recovery will hinge on whether he undergoes surgery, but he faces an extended rehab either way. Counsell, however, said the early prognosis is that Smith will not miss the entire season.

Smith joins the annals of athletes injured in freak accidents, including notable instances in Brewers history, like Steve Sparks and the phone book, Matt Wise and the salad tongs and Francisco Rodriguez and the cactus

Smith pitched in a Class A game on Thursday at Maryvale Baseball Park because innings are getting tight in big league camp, navigating the outing without incident. Jeffress had attended for support, and after the two crossed the parking lot and entered the Major League clubhouse, Smith paused at the doorway, stood on his left leg and pulled off his right shoe without untying it.

Moments later, Jeffress was shocked to see Smith limping down the hallway behind him.

"My shoes were tight, because I had been pitching," Smith said, "so I pulled a little bit harder, and 'pop.'"

The freak nature of the injury made it hurt worse, Smith said.

"We take off our shoes all the time and never even think about it," he said. "I'm probably going to wear sandals the rest of my life."

The Brewers now have six healthy candidates in camp for three bullpen jobs: Blaine Boyer, Chris Capuano, Tyler Cravy, David Goforth, Franklin Morales and Ariel Pena. Cravy and Goforth have options. Pena is out of options. Boyer, Capuano and Morales are non-roster invitees. Capuano and Morales are the only healthy left-handers remaining.

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Neither has the track record of late-inning success as Smith, who led the Brewers with 76 appearances last season while posting a 2.70 ERA. Among National League relievers, only the Reds' Aroldis Chapman had more strikeouts (116) than Smith's 91. Smith ranked fourth in the league with 12.93 strikeouts per nine innings.

"He's one of the elite relievers in baseball. He is," Counsell said. "I think his slider is one of the hardest pitches in the game to hit. … It's the comfort zone of knowing you can go to him in any situation."

Smith is earning $1.475 million this season.

"We're not unique in dealing with injuries," Counsell said. "What happened to Will, it's just bad luck. Unfortunately, as a baseball player, you're a little bit beholden to what happens to your body sometimes. You shake your head."

Smith was told he should make a full recovery from the injury, and that an LCL injury, on the outside of the knee, requires a shorter recovery time than for the ACL on the inside of the joint. Players can require up to a year to recover from ACL surgeries.

"If anything is going to go wrong with your knee," Smith said, "it's a good thing it was this."

Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
As he will open the season on the disabled list, Smith can start the campaign on waivers in virtually all fantasy leagues. Only those with plentiful disabled-list space will want to stash the left-hander. Smith could be part of a closer committee upon his return to the relief corps, but Jeffress should now have the opportunity to handle the ninth-inning gig. Based on his potential to amass saves and compile a solid strikeout total, the right-hander should be owned in virtually all leagues. But Jeffress still has to show greater consistency before he can be viewed a top-20 reliever. Those in National League-only formats may wish to find bench space for Corey Knebel, who could receive some save chances if Jeffress falters in April.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.