A guy projected to be a key contributor for the 2019 Cubs could wind up making an impact in 2018.
Drew Smyly was signed the same night as Brandon Morrow during the Winter Meetings with an eye on the future, considering the former Detroit Tiger and Tampa Bay Ray was in recovery mode after having Tommy John surgery last summer. General manager Jed Hoyer went as far as saying that night that “this is a move that’s focused on 2019.”
But Cubs skipper Joe Maddon, who managed Smyly in Tampa before coming to the North Side of Chicago, said Saturday that Smyly could be an option for the team before this season is over.
Smyly threw a batting-practice session Friday at Wrigley Field in front of Cubs coaches, front-office staff and teammates who might have never seen him pitch before. He said he felt good as his recovery is progressing. And if everything goes right from here on, maybe Smyly could find himself on the mound for the Cubs later this season.
“That was the plan moving into this season,” Maddon said. “We talked in spring training, he has it in his mind exactly what he wants to have happen, the fact that he can contribute to us this year. From that appearance (Friday), it really looks like that is a strong possibility. But again, with this kind of an injury, you still want to play it along properly, let biology take its course, and then eventually you make your decision. But he has had this in his mind from the beginning. He wants to be able to do that, and it looks like he’s on a path to do that.”
“With each time, I feel a little less and less hesitation,” Smyly said Friday. “With my curveball, I don’t think I’ve really snapped it down yet, there’s a little bit there. But with my fastball and changeup, it’s kind of gone. I can just forget about my elbow and pitch, and that’s a really good feeling to have. It’s been basically a year since I’ve been pain free, so I’m very hopeful that it will stay smooth for me down this final stretch as I start getting in games and facing rehab and get back here as soon as I can.”
Now, who knows in what capacity Smyly would serve for a team that figures to be making a playoff chase in the latter months of the 2018 campaign. Smyly has made 85 starts in his big league career, but the starting staff is pretty jam-packed as it is, with Mike Montgomery only getting an opportunity to start games with Yu Darvish on the disabled list. Once Darvish returns, Montgomery, who has been turning in great results as a starting pitcher, will likely be forced back to the bullpen.
Smyly, though, has made plenty of relief appearances in his career, too, 71 of them, to be precise. While the Cubs’ bullpen has been very strong — coming into Saturday with a 2.62 relief ERA, one of the three best marks in baseball — adding another arm, especially one that could eat up multiple innings, late in the season could be helpful.
But what about 2019? Where does Smyly fit in that picture? He was signed prior to the Cubs shelling out big bucks for Darvish at the start of spring training, meaning a rotation spot that might have been open in 2019 has now been spoken for. In fact, all five members of the Cubs’ current starting rotation — Darvish, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood— are potentially under team control through the 2020 season (there are some team and club options in there that make it slightly less than a certainty). Montgomery is under team control, too, though his tendency to be squeezed out of the rotation on an annual basis might make him a candidate to pitch elsewhere.
Smyly, though, could serve in a role similar to what Montgomery has done for the past several seasons: a quality long-relief man who is also capable of filling in as a quality spot starter. Montgomery has been incredibly valuable to Maddon in that role, and whether Montgomery moves on to another team or stays with the Cubs, surely they would love having another player capable of that same back-and-forth between the rotation and bullpen. Smyly could fit that bill.
For the time being, though, Smyly still has plenty of work to do to get back to full strength. But he’s feeling good about his progress to this point.
“I’ve still got a few more live BPs, and I’ll start doing some sim games in Arizona. Hopefully by early July, somewhere right around there, I can start a rehab assignment,” Smyly said. “I’m sure it’ll be like a whole month of building up. I just need innings, I need to go compete and face some hitters, but I look forward to it. It’s going to be a fun time when I’m pitching every five days.
“Feeling pain free, not having much hesitation, forgetting about the surgery and competing. It’s just me and the hitter, giving my best. I’m not fully letting it go yet, but (Friday) was a big step for me just facing some major league hitters and throwing at Wrigley Field. It was a lot of fun. With each time, I’ll put a little bit more into it. But my body’s responding great. I haven’t had any hiccups yet — knock on wood — and I just hope to stay the course down the final stretch.”