The Cubs are kicking left-hander Drew Smyly back into relief, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said this evening (relayed by Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times). Smyly had been set to oppose lefty Bailey Falter for Sunday’s series finale in Pittsburgh; the Cubs’ starter for that game is now listed as to be announced.
It’s a moderate surprise, as Smyly was generally expected to hold onto a rotation spot after Marcus Stroman’s recent injury setback. The Cubs had used Smyly three times in relief last week but gave him the start on Tuesday in Detroit. That outing didn’t go well — the Tigers saddled him with a loss by plating seven runs in 3 2/3 innings — and the Cubs have decided to return him to a relief role.
Smyly had worked a scoreless inning in each of the aforementioned three bullpen appearances. That’s far too small a sample on which to draw any conclusions, particularly given a generally weak slate of opponents (Blue Jays, White Sox and Royals). Moving him to long relief allows manager David Ross to deploy Smyly in lower-leverage situations than he’d have taken on as a starter.
It’s certainly not the result the Cubs envisioned when re-signing the veteran southpaw last offseason. Smyly had turned in a 3.47 ERA over 106 1/3 frames a season ago. The Cubs guaranteed him $19MM over two years on a deal that also allows him to opt out at the end of this season. Smyly hasn’t come close to replicating last season’s run prevention, allowing 5.28 earned runs per nine across 124 1/3 innings.
On the one hand, the front office likely anticipated some amount of regression. Smyly had a below-average 20.4% strikeout rate a season ago, leading to estimators like SIERA (4.06) and FIP (4.23) that were above his actual ERA. They certainly wouldn’t have anticipated his ERA jumping by almost two runs, though. Smyly’s 21.2% strikeout percentage is actually a touch better than last season’s, but his walks are up slightly and he has had a very tough time keeping the ball in the park. He has allowed 1.81 homers per nine, the seventh-highest rate among pitchers with 100+ frames.
The Cubs are through seven days in a stretch of 13 consecutive game days. The quartet of Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Jameson Taillon and Javier Assad comprises the rotation. Chicago will have to find another solution for Sunday. They could try to patch things together with a bullpen game, though that’d run the risk of straining the pitching staff in advance of a crucial three-game series against the Brewers that begins the following day. Righty Hayden Wesneski is on the MLB roster and has starting experience; he struggled out of the rotation early in the year and has been working 2-3 inning relief stints of late.
If Chicago wanted to look to the minor leagues, they could go outside the 40-man roster. Prospect Ben Brown has been on the Triple-A injured list for three weeks. The Cubs optioned righty Caleb Kilian back to Iowa on August 15. Pitchers must spend at least 15 days on an optional stint before they can be recalled unless they’re brought back in conjunction with an IL transaction. The only way the Cubs could turn to Kilian by Sunday is if they place someone else on the shelf.
2021 first-round pick Jordan Wicks and former Marlins righty Nick Neidert are among the non-roster players starting games for Iowa. Chicago would have to select either player’s contract but has a pair of openings on the 40-man roster to accommodate a move if they so choose.