Heading into the 2022 season, the Cubs brought Drew Smyly into the fold to be someone they hoped could capably cover innings for a somewhat patched together rotation. Any unexpected success he had in his age-33 season would just be a bonus.
He went on to turn in a fine performance last season, and now for the next two years, the two sides will be running it back. On Saturday, the Cubs and Smyly officially agreed to a two-year deal, reportedly worth $19 million, with a mutual option for 2025.
Smyly wasn’t going to be an ace for the Cubs last season, nor will he be expected be one moving forward, but he was a smart signing who became a reliable arm in the middle of the rotation. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has talked all offseason about adding quality innings to the pitching staff. In that sense, it had to have been an easy call for the Cubs to bring Smyly back.
With Smyly returning, all but Wade Miley remain from the rotation that posted Major League Baseball’s third-lowest ERA (2.89) in the second half of last season that led to the Cubs’ 39-31 record over their last 70 games. That group is now bolstered by the addition of Jameson Taillon on a four-year deal, and it returns Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks (assuming health) to provide veteran leadership while Justin Steele looks to build off his impressive first full season as a starter.
Smyly’s return also allows the Cubs to be flexible with the rest of the arms on the roster. Keegan Thompson, Adbert Alzolay and Adrian Sampson can work as multi-inning options out of the bullpen with the ability to step in for a start when need be. Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad can fill similar roles, or they could even start the season at Triple-A Iowa to keep them on a starter’s schedule. The Cubs have options, and that comes from the extra depth afforded to them by re-signing the 33-year-old Smyly.
On an individual level, the Cubs aren’t bringing him back to be anything more than what he was for them last season. He’s a veteran lefty who lasted at least five innings in 12 different starts in 2022, behind Stroman (18), Steele (16) and Adrian Sampson (14) for the most such starts in the rotation. He also posted his highest fWAR (1.3) and his lowest barrel rate (8.6 percent) and hard-hit rate (34.5 percent) since 2016.
And then there was his incredible stretch of starts in August. In five outings that month, Smyly went 2-1 while posting a 0.90 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP, and he limited batters to a .240 wOBA and just 1 1/2 walks per nine innings. Those numbers likely won’t hold up across an entire season, but if he can establish a solid baseline while also showing he can hit those marks for an extended stretch, that would absolutely benefit a Cubs team hoping for a more competitive 2023.
But perhaps the best reason for this reunion is that Smyly constantly stated Chicago was the place he wanted to be. As the season neared its end and Smyly continued to get peppered with questions about his future, he made it very clear — he wanted to remain with the Cubs.
“I hope so,” Smyly said about a potential return after his last start of the campaign on Oct. 1. “It’s up in the air. It’s what the Cubs want to do. I hope they see me in their plans. I would love to come back. Like I’ve said all season, just playing games here and putting on this uniform is really special. Whether I come back or not, it’s just going to be a season that I’ll remember. I’m really proud to put on this uniform. I feel good about the season I had, and I know I can help this team win in the future.”
At his end-of-season press conference, Hoyer acknowledged that the team would love to make a reunion with Smyly happen “in the right setup.” The right setup of course had to include a new contract, considering the mutual option on his deal ended up not being exercised. Mutual interest was certainly there after a solid season for the southpaw, though, enough that he and the Cubs eventually got a deal done.
Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t risk involved in re-signing him. Smyly’s first stint in Chicago, back when he signed a two-year deal heading into the 2018 season, resulted in him not throwing a single pitch for the Cubs due to his rehab from Tommy John surgery and then a trade to the Rangers. And then this past year, he strained his right oblique at the end of May and missed almost six weeks to recover. He later had to sit out a couple of turns through the rotation in September because of fatigue in his left shoulder.
All of this goes back to the point that the Cubs aren’t expecting any sort of All-Star season out of Smyly. They liked the way he competed on the mound, and they appreciated the value he added to the clubhouse. A repeat of that for the duration of his contract would make the deal worth it.
For the Cubs, they added some more of those “quality innings” that Hoyer prioritized this offseason. And for Smyly, getting the chance to keep pitching for this club is one thing he can cross off his offseason wish list
“Like I’ve said from the beginning, just the culture here and the coaching staff here, they put everyone in a really good position to succeed,” Smyly said. “Showing up to work every day, everyone is really excited to get to the ball field. That’s something for me being around a lot of teams, I don’t take that for granted.”