The Cubs are facing the potential free agent departures of a pair of veteran starters, with both Drew Smyly and Wade Miley headed towards the open market a month from now. Miley will be a free agent, while Smyly’s contract contains a $10MM mutual option with a $1MM buyout for the 2023 campaign.
Theoretically, a team will only exercise its end of a mutual option if it feels the price is at or below the player’s market value. The player, conversely, will typically only trigger his end if he feels the option price is at or above what he could find on the open market. Thus, mutual options are almost never exercised by both parties. In the vast majority of cases, players with mutual options are essentially impending free agents.
That’s the case for Smyly, but there’s a chance he doesn’t remain unsigned until free agency. Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times reports the Cubs are planning to meet with the left-hander’s representatives at Frontline later this month to discuss a potential new contract. Lee notes it’s unlikely Smyly will return on the terms of the mutual option itself but it’s possible the sides can line up on a new deal. As is the case with all impending free agents, the Cubs will have an exclusive negotiating window with Smyly until five days after the end of the World Series.
Smyly has technically had a pair of stints as a Cub, although he didn’t throw a pitch with Chicago until 2022. He signed a two-year deal heading into the 2018 season, with the Cubs aware he’d miss all of that season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. After the ’18 campaign, Chicago dealt him to the Rangers. Smyly pitched for four different teams from 2019-21 before returning to the Cubs on a one-year deal this spring. He received a $4.25MM salary for this past season and will be guaranteed another $1MM on the option buyout.
The 33-year-old had a generally solid return season to the North Siders. He missed a month mid-summer with a right oblique strain, but he otherwise stayed healthy enough to take the ball 22 times. Across 106 1/3 innings, Smyly posted a 3.47 ERA. He struck out a career-worst 20.4% of opponents, leading to less favorable reviews from fielding independent estimators. On the plus side, he only walked 5.8% of batters faced (below the 7.5% league average for starters) and held opponents to a meager 86.7 MPH average exit velocity. Smyly’s 12.4% swinging strike rate was an above-average mark that suggests he was somewhat unfortunate to generate his mediocre strikeout percentage, and he absolutely stifled left-handed opponents to the tune of a .191/.277/.326 line through 101 plate appearances.
Smyly doesn’t have eye-popping velocity, and his below-average ground-ball numbers have contributed to home run troubles in prior years. The longball wasn’t much of an issue this season, though, and he’s generally posted solid strikeout and walk numbers throughout his career. He’s spent time on the injured list each year since 2016, failing to reach 130 innings in any of the past six seasons. He’s not been a prototypical innings eater, but he’s pitched to a decent 3.96 ERA in 259 1/3 frames going back to the start of 2020.
The Cubs didn’t seem to aggressively market and/or find much trade interest in Smyly this summer. Despite his being a rental on a non-competitive team, there weren’t many public trade rumors leading up to the deadline. Smyly pitched to a sparkling 2.28 ERA in nine starts after the deadline, however, sending him towards free agency on the heels of a strong final couple months.
Whether that’ll be enough for the Arkansas product to find a multi-year deal heading into his age-34 season remains to be seen. Alex Cobb received a two-year, $20MM pact at the same age last winter. Cobb was coming off 98 1/3 innings of 3.76 ERA ball through 18 starts. He had a similar swinging strike rate in 2021 as Smyly did this season, but Cobb finished off more strikeouts and had an excellent 53.3% grounder rate. It seems unlikely Smyly will get quite to that level as a result, but there’s recent precedent for a multi-year deal for a pitcher coming off a broadly similar showing at the same age.
As another recent comparison point, Corey Kluber landed a one-year, $8MM guarantee (with incentives that could take the deal’s value to $13MM) after pitching 80 innings with a 3.83 ERA and a 12.5% swinging strike percentage last year. Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner, has had a far more accomplished career than Smyly, but his 2021 production wasn’t far off Smyly’s 2022 numbers.
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer didn’t address contract specifics, but he did broadly suggest the Cubs would have interest in retaining both Smyly and Miley. “With both guys, in the right setup, we’d love to have them back,” Hoyer told reporters this afternoon (via Lee). “They both have a really positive impact on the organization. And there’s no finish line when it comes to adding guys that can make starts in the big leagues and that can add to your culture.”
Among in-house options, the Cubs are certain to pencil Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks into the Opening Day rotation. Left-hander Justin Steele pitched well enough through 24 starts to likely earn a spot as well, but the back of the rotation is mostly up for grabs. Hayden Wesneski, acquired from the Yankees in the Scott Effross deadline deal, pitched well through his first four big league starts. He’s in the mix with Keegan Thompson and journeyman Adrian Sampson for back-end roles, but there’s certainly an opportunity for Hoyer and his staff to bolster the group this offseason.