After back-to-back injury-wrecked seasons in Seattle and Chicago, left-hander Drew Smyly joined the Rangers via trade with the Cubs last November. The transaction all but completed the teams’ midsummer deal centering on southpaw Cole Hamels, and it was a bit of an eye-opener that the Cubs parted with Smyly. The 29-year-old has been a more-than-capable big leaguer for most of his career, after all, but the Cubs – who wanted to cut unnecessary payroll – deemed him and his $7MM salary expendable.
Smyly never threw a pitch for Chicago after it signed him to a two-year, $10MM guarantee in December 2017. The Cubs’ hope at the time was Smyly would eventually recover from the Tommy John surgery he underwent as a member of the Mariners in June 2017 and return to his past form. The Rangers had the same hope when they acquired Smyly, but the union between the two sides hasn’t worked out to this point, as Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News explains.
In his most recent start of the year, Smyly turned in 3 1/3 innings of seven-earned run, eight-hit ball and allowed three homers in a loss to the lowly Orioles on Tuesday. Smyly has now taken the ball 10 times (eight starts) with Texas, and most of his outings have been middling to poor. He’s now running a 7.93 ERA/7.35 FIP with 8.79 K/9, 6.21 BB/9, a 27.3 percent groundball rate and a 20.3 percent home run-to-fly ball rate in 42 innings. Those numbers are a far cry from the production Smyly registered with the Tigers and Rays from 2014-16, a 77-start, 388-inning span in which he managed a 4.01 ERA/4.16 FIP with 8.58 K/9 and 2.55 BB/9. Smyly didn’t generate many grounders then, as shown by his 34 percent rate, but he helped limit homers (11.9 HR/FB%) with the majors’ leading infield fly percentage (15.3). He’s down to 7.1 percent in that category this season.
Even though there hasn’t been a change in Smyly’s velocity from 2016 to this year, it’s clear nothing is working in his return from TJ surgery. And with the Rangers surprisingly sitting at 30-28 and in a tie for the American League’s second wild-card spot, they may have to bounce Smyly out of their rotation to make a Cinderella run. However, that’s not going to happen yet, manager Chris Woodward said after Smyly’s start Tuesday (via Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram). Woodward has shown a willingness to make such a move, having shifted Shelby Miller – another offseason addition with a notable injury history – to the Rangers’ relief unit last month. It’s a small sample, but Miller has logged much better results as a reliever than a starter this season.
The Rangers’ reluctance to pull the plug on the Smyly experiment stems from a lack of alternatives, suggests Grant, who names only Double-A starters Joe Palumbo and Jonathan Hernandez as realistic in-house replacements. Palumbo, a 24-year-old lefty whom MLB.com considers the Rangers’ seventh-best prospect, has produced good results this season. Hernandez has a 5.47 ERA, on the other hand, but the 22-year-old has racked up a solid amount of strikeouts and grounders. At No. 8, Hernandez falls right behind Palumbo on MLB.com’s list of Rangers prospects. Nevertheless, the team doesn’t seem inclined to rush either to the majors, even as it clings to a playoff spot.
In the event Texas stays in the race over the next month and a half but still doesn’t find an inside replacement for Smyly, it could consider the trade market. General manager Jon Daniels has made it known the Rangers will be aggressive spenders heading into a new ballpark next season, so it could make sense to acquire a starter who’s under control past this year. In doing so, the Rangers would ideally better their playoff odds this season while strengthening their roster for 2020. Blue Jays righties Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez spring to mind as controllable upgrades who could be on the move in the coming weeks. Detroit lefty Matt Boyd would require a lot more than Stroman or Sanchez in return if the Tigers were to move him, but he’s someone who’d be worth inquiring about from the Rangers’ perspective.
For now, the Rangers will continue with the rotation they have. It’s not the most confidence-inspiring group, but there have been bright spots. Two of Daniels’ reasonably priced free-agent pickups, Mike Minor (two offseasons ago) and Lance Lynn (last winter), have lived up to their contracts. Ariel Jurado has pitched well, albeit over just three starts, and Adrian Sampson has been effective of late. But the Rangers’ starting five is difficult to trust after Minor and Lynn, especially because of Smyly’s struggles, and the unit’s shakiness will make it tough for the team to snap its two-year playoff drought this season.