Chicago’s $19 Million Bet: Drew Smyly Has One Good Fight Left in Him

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

In the days before Christmas, the Chicago Cubs filled out their starting rotation by bringing back a familiar face: Drew Smyly. This past season was one to forget for the Cubs, but Smyly was one of the bright spots. After confusing hitters with a breaking ball-heavy attack, Smyly earned an equally confusing contract structure: $8 million in 2023, $8.5 million in ’24, with an opt-out after this year and a $10 million mutual option for 2025, which comes with a $2.5 million buyout. That brings the total guarantee to two years, $19 million.

Once one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, Smyly spent most of his late 20s and early 30s bouncing aimlessly from team to team. But in 2022, he found stability in Chicago, and rewarded the Cubs with his best full season since 2014: 22 starts, 106 1/3 innings, and a 3.47 ERA. While his ERA would seem to flatter his underlying numbers, Smyly still posted a respectable FIP (4.23) and xERA (4.17). Compared to comparable free agents (Mike Clevinger, Noah Syndergaard, Matthew Boyd), Smyly’s getting an extra guaranteed year, but at a slightly lower AAV. If you want a starting pitcher who’s likely to throw 100 innings or more, with a reasonable chance of better-than-replacement-level rate stats, two years and $19 million is about what you should expect to pay.

That’s not too bad for a back-end starter, which is all Chicago will need him to be. The Cubs have already added Jameson Taillon to a rotation that includes Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele, who was quietly impressive in his first full season as a big league starter. Kyle Hendricks is also on course to return from a shoulder injury, which means Smyly is basically just there to make up the numbers. Let’s put it this way: If Smyly ends up having to be anything more than Chicago’s fourth-best starter, this is going to be a lost season anyway, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the 33-year-old lefty.

After more than a decade in the majors, Smyly’s reputation is still largely predicated on his injury history, which reads like exposition from a bad movie about an aging boxer.

(Interior doctor’s office, day. The walls are stark white, our hero’s skin looks pale to the point of sickliness by the harsh fluorescent lights. He sits on the examination table, balanced carefully to mitigate the various chronic aches that have ailed him for so long. The DOCTOR, a studious, bespectacled figure, is perched on a stool across from him. The DOCTOR exhales as he regards a clipboard through thick black-rimmed glasses.)

DOCTOR: Let’s see here. 2011: Elbow soreness. 2012: Left middle finger, strained ribcage. 2015: Left shoulder inflammation, torn left labrum. 2017 and 2018: Torn left UCL, Tommy John surgery. 2019: Nerve tightness in left arm. 2020: Strained left index finger. 2021: Left forearm inflammation. 2022: Strained right oblique muscle…

SMYLY (grinning ironically): One more surgery and I get a free large pizza and a two-liter Coke.

(The DOCTOR does not smile.)

DOCTOR: That’s a lot of physical punishment. Isn’t there anything else you could do for a living? Something less dangerous?

SMYLY: I love it too much, Doc. I can’t give it up.

You know the rest of the film. Training montages, arguments with a frazzled love interest in a kitchen with linoleum floors and a yellow refrigerator, and ultimately an unlikely but inspiring championship.

Certainly that’s what the Cubs are hoping for.

Jokes aside, Smyly’s actually been fairly durable by contemporary standards since his return from Tommy John. He made at least 20 starts and threw at least 100 innings in 2019, ’21, and ’22; only 41 other pitchers can say the same. That was emergency starter territory a generation ago, but nowadays throwing 100 innings a year basically makes you Livan Hernandez. The results have been somewhat less impressive; of the 111 starters who have thrown at least 300 innings in the past four years, Smyly is 89th in ERA, 106th in FIP, 107th in WAR, and 64th in K-BB% (though those numbers are unkind to Smyly, who started that four-year run with an abysmal half-season in Texas in 2019).

That’s hardly the kind of dominant performance expected from Smyly when he was the Steve Avery of the early 2010s Tigers. (The rest of this metaphor, for the curious among you: Max Scherzer is Greg Maddux, Justin Verlander is John Smoltz, Rick Porcello is Tom Glavine, David Price is Denny Neagle, Doug Fister is Kent Mercker, and Aníbal Sánchez is Paul Byrd.)

But he’s definitely worth $9.5 million’s worth of upgrade over a replacement-level starter, and his improved results in 2022 do reflect a change in repertoire. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Smyly found an effective breaking pitch and started throwing it all the time.

Think of the curveball-happiest, hook-breakin’-off-ing-est pitcher you can. Charlie Morton, Rich Hill — or Adam Wainwright, who has a curveball-related nickname, after all. None of them loved the deuce as much as Smyly, who threw 43.2% curveballs last year. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in 2022, that’s the highest by more than five percentage points. In the past four seasons, there have been two instances of a pitcher throwing 100 or more innings and 40% curveballs or more: Smyly in 2021 and Smyly in ’22.

Smyly’s curve isn’t a 3,000 rpm hard-breaking weapon, like you might find with, well, pick an Astros pitcher. It comes in in the high 70s with lazy-looking break, and is only in the eighth percentile for spin rate. It almost flutters. But he’ll throw it anywhere, in any count, for strikes.

That served him well enough in 2021, when he pitched mostly out of the rotation for Atlanta and won a ring. (He was slightly better, relative to the league, than Avery was the year he won the World Series with the Braves.) In 2022, Smyly goosed his curveball rate again, but only slightly, and nearly doubled his cutter usage. Last year — and I’m rounding a little — he threw about 40% curves, 40% sinkers, and 20% cutters, which have slightly less rise and run than the sinker and average about 4 mph slower.

It doesn’t generate a lot of strikeouts, but he was about league average in whiff percentage, with an excellent walk rate and record of inducing weak contact. Not Framber Valdez levels of weak contact, but more than enough to get by as a back-end starter. Which, again, is all the Cubs need him to be.

With that said, Chicago’s six major league free agent signings — Cody Bellinger, Taillon, Brad Boxberger, Dansby Swanson, Tucker Barnhart, and Smyly — are set to make a combined $53.75 million in 2023. That’s just in real money; five of those deals are either backloaded or have options that jack up the total tax bill to just over $75.3 million.

That’s a lot of money spent in the middle region of the free agent market.

Steamer projects 12 players on the 2023 Cubs depth chart, including Smyly, to come in between 1.1 and 3.6 WAR. If you like retrospective analysis, every pitcher on the Cubs’ major league depth chart, except Hendricks, had an ERA between 2.95 and 4.22 in 2022. No starting position player slugged better than .447. And the free agent market — which has been almost totally depleted of high-end talent — is even less hospitable to the Cubs than it looks, since most of the best remaining players are either starters or middle infielders.

And the Cubs still have a few holes. The bottom of the lineup looks bleak, particularly at first base. But it might be so bleak that the remaining available third-tier free agents at the position could offer an upgrade. (Could they convince Cubs fans that Eric Hosmer is Anthony Rizzo with a beard and thicker eyebrows? It’s worth a shot.)

But then again, a team of average-to-above-average players with no real stars might be able to finagle 87 or 88 wins, and that could be enough to win the NL Central. In order to do that, they’ll need a back-end starter who can keep them in games — a need they’ve now filled with Smyly.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Well this is basically the most depressing article I’ve read as a tigers fan in some time lol