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While the focus surrounding the Cubs' disabled list has centered on the trio of stars (Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow), Drew Smyly continues to fly in under the radar.

You can't blame Cubs fans for forgetting about him given he's never thrown a pitch for the team after signing a two-year, $10 million deal over the winter.

As Smyly continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery, his status for 2018 is becoming more and more of a question mark. What once appeared a strong possibility for a late-season return has now delved into one big #ShrugEmoji.

Last month, Smyly was throwing simulated games against Cubs hitters and hoped to go on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues by Aug. 1. It's now Aug. 16 and he has yet to begin that rehab stint.

Joe Maddon said Wednesday things are still status quo on the 29-year-old left-handed pitcher. The issue with Smyly isn't pain in that surgically-repaired elbow, he explained, but more on his body recovering at a slower rate than he would like.

"It's hard to put into words — I'm healthy, I'm throwing, it's just like the recovery standpoint, the bounce-back from the next day/the next couple days is not where I really want it to be," Smyly said. "So that's the hardest part — that's like the final hurdle. Just being able to pitch and then being like, 'OK, I'm good to pitch in a couple days as a reliever or five [days as a starter].' 

"It's just not really responding the way I want it to. It's completely normal. It's just part of the of the rehab process — shortening the window. When I'm on the mound and well-rested, I feel great and I walk off it excited where I'm at and ready for the next step. I kinda wake up the next day and the soreness just lingers."

 

Recovery from Tommy John is never linear; little things are different for each guy and each process.

That's why the Cubs backloaded Smyly's contract. They never went into 2018 planning on penciling him into the rotation or bullpen in September.

But up until a couple weeks ago, it looked very possible that Smyly could be a wild card for the Cubs pitching staff.

"I don't know if he's gonna be well enough to do that," Maddon said. "I know Drew really well and I know how good he is. It's enticing. You'd love to see it happen, but let's just get him well first."

Maddon managed Smyly with the Tampa Bay Rays in the second half of the 2014 and current Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey worked with the southpaw for the 2015-16 seasons, as well.

Smyly has extensive experience as both a reliever (71 appearances) and starter (85 starts) over his five-year MLB career. He boasts a 3.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 8.7 K/9, but hasn't thrown a pitch in a meaningful game since Sept. 26, 2016 (almost six weeks before the Cubs won the World Series).

"I'm so eager to get out there," Smyly said. "This is the hardest part for me, because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I'm on the mound, I feel great and I'm healthy and it's an exciting feeling.

"And then you kinda wake up the next day and you're like, 'Um, I'm still sore from it.' And so it's just been maintaining that hope and still not rushing it and taking it slow. When I signed with the Cubs, the goal was always 2019, but obviously I want to play. They know I want to play, just trying to push through."

Smyly feels like he's close and has helped work through his frustrations by talking with fellow teammates and friends — like Darvish and Tyler Chatwood — who have gone through the Tommy John process.

Once his body starts responding and recovering the way he would like the final hurdle for Smyly would be to pitch with maximum effort in a game environment. Sim games and bullpens are great, but there's no way to actually simulate the adrenaline and speed of an actual game. For now, he's still working with the training staff in Chicago.

The postseason is still more than six weeks away and the Cubs have so many other questions to answer on their roster outside of Smyly. 

But for a team that could use some more quality left-handed depth in the bullpen, it's hard to look at Smyly inches away from a return and not wonder — "what if?"

 

"I'm just champing at the bit to get out there," he said. "But it's excitement, too, because we go out there and we expect to win every day and that's a fun feeling. In the dugout, the energy in the ballpark, the atmosphere here, the fans every day — I get goosebumps just sitting in the dugout watching the team play.

"I'm anxious for that feeling myself to be on the mound. It'll come in good time. I'm very hopeful that it'll be this year, still, but if it's not, then it'll be next year. ... Counting down the days until I'm out there, man."