MESA, Ariz. — Drew Smyly expressed multiple times during the 2022 season his desire to return to the Cubs in 2023, but with his contract only holding a mutual option for the year, it was going to take a new deal to make it happen.
Smyly had to be patient after he declined the option. The Cubs had reciprocated the interest in a reunion, but they seemed to first have their sights set on locking down other free agents such as Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon and Cody Bellinger.
“We would stay in contact,” Smyly said in a conversation with CHGO. “[The Cubs] continued to make it clear that they viewed me as a part of the team and wanted me back, but there’s just a lot of things that have to unfold. You have to go through the process and dominoes, obviously, certain teams want to go after certain players first, and you just kind of have to let the dominoes fall where they fall.”
So, as he had done multiple times in his career, Smyly waited.
The 33-year-old understands that baseball is a business. As a free agent — and especially if you’re not one of the premier ones — you have to let things unfold. You reach out to teams and they reach out to you, but you still have to go through the process as long as it takes.
“At my stage in my career, you’re kind of numb to it, honestly,” Smyly said. “It is what it is. It’s 100 percent a business. In the offseason it’s a business. They’re going to try to do everything they can to put the best team on the field for the lowest price, and as a player, you’re trying to maximize your value. You have a short window to do it and you’re trying to get the most, and it’s just kind of a back and forth.”
But that waiting paid off, as the Cubs made the easy call and signed Smyly to a two-year, $19 million deal (which includes an opt out after 2023 and a mutual option for 2025). The deal became official on Christmas Eve, no less.
“It was a good Christmas present,” Smyly said with a laugh.
“It’s just a weird, weird game,” Smyly added. “You just kind of have to wait it out as a player and kind of wait ’til it’s your turn to go. I mean, the Cubs were always the place I wanted to come back. I love it here.”
Now, Smyly enters spring training as one of the veteran starters ready to lead this Cubs team to what they hope is a playoff spot. While the No. 5 spot in the rotation is still up for grabs, Smyly is — along with Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon and Justin Steele — set to take one of those top-four starter jobs.
One of the main reasons the Cubs were interested in a reunion was because of Smyly’s consistency. When he was healthy (he did miss a month over the summer due to a right oblique strain), he was one of Cubs manager David Ross’ most trusted starters. That included an impressive August, when Smyly posted a 0.90 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP and a 4.17 K/BB ratio.
“He’s an important piece,” Ross said. “When he’s healthy, man, he’s really good. To see some of the stuff uptick last year, 94s and 95s at times, touching that. He knows how to pitch.”
Even better for Smyly, he feels like he got his first real offseason in a long time.
After the weird 2020 pandemic-shortened season, he was on the 2021 World Series champion Braves, so he was still pitching as late as Oct. 31 that year (though he obviously admitted winning a title was “not a bad thing at all”). That led into the lockout, which didn’t allow him to do all of his normal offseason programs.
Heading into this season, though, Smyly said he feels further along in his offseason that usual. Though as of Tuesday he’s only thrown one live BP, he said he’s thrown more bullpens and feels like he’s been ready to face hitters for a while now. In comparison to the last two winters, Smyly is feeling “younger and stronger and ready to go.”
“It was more just going from the COVID season to 2021, a short season to a really long season all the way through playoffs, I just felt like I never really had a chance to recover and breathe going into last season with the Cubs,” Smyly said. “Now, I finally feel like I got to step back, decompress, take a load off and then get right back at it. In a way, you’re just more hungry, you’re excited to go through that again [after] that full offseason.”
As soon as Ross heard the Cubs had re-signed Smyly, Ross said he shot him a text that included “a nice cuss word and a ‘Yeah!'” Again, Ross was a big fan of what Smyly brought to the table in 2022 as far as a consistent veteran presence on and off the field.
The Cubs may not have a no-doubt ace on the roster, but they do have strong rotation depth. Smyly’s return allows the Cubs the option to keep some of their young arms in the bullpen or at Triple-A Iowa and not force them into the Opening Day rotation. That’s certainly a good problem to have.
“[Smyly is] a veteran, another World Series champion you add to that list,” Ross said. “Just a guy that, again, when he’s out there, he’s this ultimate competitor, but he’s such a good teammate in the clubhouse and a guy you like having around. I was definitely excited we got him back.”
So, that’s what Smyly brings as he continues on with his Cubs career. He had been in contact with some other teams, but his goal was to remain a Cub. Now, he’s out to prove he can keep that consistency going in Year 2.
“All winter, I stayed pretty hopeful that I would be back here,” Smyly said. “That’s where I wanted to be. Everything happens for a reason, and I’m really pumped that it worked out.”