‘Stubborn’ Drew Smyly Feels Good About Outing Despite Results

Drew Smyly didn’t have the best outing of his career Thursday afternoon against a spotty Rockies lineup, giving up five earned runs on seven hits — two of which left the yard — over just two innings. He actually came out for a third frame, but was pulled after giving up three hits and a walk to open it. With an 11.25 ERA over two Cactus League appearances, both the box score and context-free eye test indicate the lefty has a steep uphill battle to earn a rotation spot.

But what if we try to add a little context back into the equation?

“The ball was coming out really well,” Smyly told reporters after he hit the showers. “My fastball seems really hoppy, especially.”

Unless he was just thinking about a postgame IPA, the 34-year-old felt good about how the sinker was jumping out of his hand. He worked with Driveline over the offseason to add some new pitches and may have worked on bumping his velo a bit as well. Working in short outings also allows him to empty the tank more than if his intent was to go deep.

Even more important than how the fastball felt, however, is what his other pitches weren’t doing. While that would be a concern in the regular season, spring training is a literal testing ground for new grips and sequencing.

“You kind of have to discredit the results because I was putting a lot of hitters back in the count where I probably could have had a chance to finish them much earlier,” Smyly explained. “But I was being stubborn by trying to throw pitches I might not normally throw — just to want to see a result out of it.”

He mentioned the splitter in particular, the newest offering he’s been working to perfect over the last few months. If this was a game that mattered, he’d be able to ditch a pitch he didn’t have the feel for in favor of his traditional sinker/curve combo with a few cutters sprinkled in. Instead, Smyly had more freedom to experiment with different circumstances and sequences against the Rockies. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he forced himself to experiment.

“It was one of those games where I could tell early on my fastball felt really good, he said. “But also one of those spring training games where I’ve got to throw all these other pitches.”

Now, I’m not saying we should all reframe the start as promising. Far from it, actually. The way I see it, this most recent appearance told us very little about Smyly’s future role on the staff. He’s a serious tweener among a group that includes Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski, and Jordan Wicks, so there’s a lot of string left to play out in Mesa. Cubs GM Carter Hawkins more or less shut the door on the possibility of using a six-man rotation and Craig Counsell indicated that at least one pitcher who falls outside the starting five could be shortened up rather than heading to the minors to start.

“That’s a possibility for sure,” Counsell said about lengthening the rotation. “But I also think at some point that guy doesn’t become your sixth because he’s been shortened up. So I think that could happen. I really think we’re well positioned right now where our young pitching is. We’re going to be talking about more than six, I can promise you that.”

Smyly obviously isn’t at risk of being sent down, though that in and of itself doesn’t give him a leg up on the competition. Given how they profile and have performed in the past, I’d say Wicks is the best option to start with the others occupying bullpen roles. Again, much of that will depend on how things go the rest of the way in March and who steps up one way or the other to force the Cubs to put them in a particular spot.

This is yet another area in which I believe the Cubs have more confidence in their new manager to make the right decisions. Not so much about the roster itself, necessarily, but in how members of the pitching staff will be deployed. Counsell was able to win in Milwaukee by leaning heavily on an elite bullpen backing a decent rotation, and also on a very strong rotation with a solid-but-not-great ‘pen.

He’s not an insert-tab-A-into-slot-B manager, which is good because this is far from a plug-and-play roster. Now we just need to sit back and see how things develop over the next few weeks as the pitching appearances begin to take on a little more significance.

Back to top button