Drew Smyly was removed from the rotation following a disastrous start against the Mets earlier in the month, his fourth in a row allowing at least four earned runs. He made two quasi-relief appearances in there as well, working as the bulk man with mixed results. The Cubs were able to shorten the rotation because they had three off days in just over a week between the Mets and Royals, which gave David Ross an opportunity to get Smyly right with bullpen duty.
The experiment appears to have worked in a very limited sample, with Smyly tossing scoreless innings in three appearances. He faced only 10 total batters and struck out three with just one walk and two hits allowed as Ross put him in advantageous situations to build back a little confidence. That will be put to the test Tuesday as Smyly makes the start in Detroit.
There was some speculation that the lefty might work as an opener, but the bullpen has been heavily taxed of late and needed five relievers to complete Monday’s contest. One of those was Hayden Wesneski, who would presumably have been counted on to eat multiple innings in relief of Smyly. Wesneski only faced two batters and could turn around to work again on Tuesday, but he hasn’t pitched on less than three days’ rest this season.
It’s also possible that Ross is being careful with Wesneski, who hadn’t pitched in eight days prior to this most recent appearance. The manager had noted that a member of the bullpen was nursing an injury of some sort, so it’s possible he was speaking about Wesneski. Then again, each of the five games in which Wesneski was down saw the Cubs’ starter go at least six innings with no reliever going more than one inning.
Though it doesn’t really factor in this conversation other than trying to tie up a loose speculative end, Daniel Palencia likewise hadn’t pitched since August 13 against the Blue Jays. The flame-throwing righty had been off for six days prior to that, giving him just two appearances in two weeks and four total in August. He hasn’t pitched on back-to-back days this season, so it’s likely he’s down Tuesday as well.
That brings us back to Smyly, who the Cubs may be looking to ride for as long as they can. I don’t think we’re talking about a situation like when the Reds left Ben Lively in there to wear one with 13 earned runs over four innings, but Ross needs a little length here and it sounds like he’s got confidence in Smyly to get it done.
“I think the data always pointed to his stuff was still good,” Ross explained. “I think what [working as a reliever] does is allow you to come in, get aggressive in the zone as a short burst, kind of air it out a little bit, so to speak, then be on the attack.
“I think the mental benefit of that can really carry over.”
Now, is it possible the manager is just maintaining a positive outlook and trying to gas his guy up a little bit? Sure. An even more pessimistic way to view it is to say the Cubs are willing to punt a game in order to sort of prove a point and determine whether or not Smyly is even going to be around through the duration of his contract, or even the season.
While I think that’s too harsh a take, I do believe the club is failing to properly prioritize either winning or development by starting Smyly over, say, Jordan Wicks. It’s pretty clear Smyly’s stuff is playing well in the ‘pen and there are two 40-man spots open following the designation and release of Tucker Barnhart. The decision to start Smyly and leave Wicks in Iowa indicates the Cubs are holding those spots for Brad Boxberger and Nick Burdi, which is fine as long as at least one of them is activated from the 60-day IL immediately.
And before you go saying that Wicks is untested and shouldn’t be thrown into a playoff race right now, consider that Smyly has a 7.35 ERA across his last 13 appearances. That sample includes a scoreless start against the Pirates on June 19 and those three scoreless relief outings. If we narrow things down to his last six starts, Smyly has a 10.00 ERA with 40 hits allowed over 30 innings. On paper, Wicks is a better option.
There’s also the matter of Smyly’s current and future salaries, which are in line to jump dramatically if he continues to work longer outings. I’ve covered this already, so I’ll simply note that getting 30 more innings over the remainder of the season — which is pretty easy with eight potential starts — will earn Smyly $2.5 million in bonuses while increasing his 2024 guarantee by the same amount. That’s in addition to the $500,000 he’s already earned.
So another way to view this start in a really pessimistic/pragmatic way is that the front office is building a defense in the event that there’s a grievance against them for suppressing Smyly’s earning power. The performance numbers alone present more than enough evidence, but this could be one of those situations in which the Cubs are allowing Smyly to either sink or swim.
If he’s found his mojo over the last three outings and is back to the guy who shoved early in the season, that’s awesome. But if he gets hammered again, the team can easily limit his innings moving forward and save some money while also justifying a late-season promotion to aid the rotation. I’m not saying that’s what they are doing, mind you, just that it sorta feels that way.
My preference would have been for the Cubs to bring Wicks up and keep Smyly in the bullpen, but Jed Hoyer cares little for my druthers. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that everything goes well Tuesday night and that the offense makes the pitching a moot point.