The Cubs didn’t select anyone in the first round of the 2016 Rule 5 Draft last week, but they did wind up with one of the top 10 picks.
Picking seventh overall, the Milwaukee Brewers selected left-hander Caleb Smith from the New York Yankees before immediately trading him to the Chicago Cubs for cash. That’d presumably be one of those pre-arranged deals.
Smith, 25, reached Triple-A for the first time in 2015, but threw 63.2 innings as a reliever for the Double-A Trenton Thunder in 2016. There, he finished with a mediocre 3.96 ERA, but a strong 3.15 FIP, thanks to excellent strikeout (25.1%) and walk (7.2%) rates.
Despite being traded to Chicago, Smith (and the Cubs) will still be subject to the rules of the Rule 5 Draft – meaning that they will have to keep Smith on their Major League roster for the entirety of the 2017 season (and/or up to 90 days on the DL) if they want to keep him in the organization beyond that (unless they could work out a minor trade to keep Smith, which does sometimes happen). So, given that we may actually see a fair bit of Smith in 2017 if the Cubs are serious about keeping him, it’s time to get to know him.
Smith, 25, was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 14th round of the 2013 MLB Draft (that’s Kris Bryant’s year! – Smith just came 432 picks later). Originally a starter, Smith has bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, before settling into something of a swing-man role in 2016.
A left-hander, Smith routinely operates with a low-90s fastball and solid-average changeup (Baseball America). His manager at Double-A Trenton, Bobby Mitchell, recently mentioned how sorely he’ll be missed. “Caleb really stands out to me,” explained Mitchell. “Here is a guy who we forced to go back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation; we really didn’t have a role for him in the early going. He had some struggles but by the end of the year he was unhittable.” Mitchell later added an anecdote about how opposing players used to come up to him at third base and mention that, despite knowing that his change-up was coming, they “still had no chance to hit it.”
Like we saw with the Cubs most recent three free-agent Minor League pitcher signings, sometimes you just have to target players with the right stuff, and hope your coaching staff and organizational infrastructure can get them where they need to be to get results. Unfortunately for Smith, he’ll be on something of a shorter timeline/leash, because he’ll have to prove his worth at the Major League level.
For what it’s worth, Depth Charts is projecting Smith to finish with a 3.80 ERA (4.10 FIP) out of the Cubs bullpen this year, but it’s difficult to put too much stock in what they’re projecting it to be just a 10.0 inning sample, and it’s based on the whole of his minor league data. Instead, let’s take a closer look at his Double-A numbers last season, because there’s actually quite a bit by which to be encouraged.
As I mentioned previously, Smith underperformed his expected results by quite a bit. Typically, a 25.1% strikeout rate and a 7.2% walk rate will get you much further than a 3.96 ERA. Indeed, Smith dealt with a much lower than his usual strand rate (66.7%) and a much higher than his usual BABIP (.344).
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make a good pitcher look bad.
But it’s not all positive signs under the hood. As a left-hander, Smith might seem like a good bet to stick in a bullpen that just lost a few of them, but he’s actually been a bit better against righties. According to Jim Callis’ scouting report, Smith “is actually more effective against right-handers because his best secondary offering is his changeup.”
Although it’s encouraging to know that Smith might excel against right-handers (because, frankly, reverse split pitchers can be very useful), I think he’d probably stand a better chance of sticking in the Cubs bullpen (and thus the organization), had he been a dominant LOOGY (maybe even one who greatly struggled with right-handers). So, then, he may have to be more of a full-inning or swing pitcher to stick.
Although the Cubs have already added lefty LOOGY-type Brian Duensing, and have added lefty-killer Koji Uehera as well, Smith’s most direct path in the pen feels like it depends on his ability to get left-handers out, at least in a swing-type role. With righties Wade Davis, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Grimm, and Uehara already locked into the pen, Smith simply may not have many opportunities otherwise.
I suppose we’ll see where things stand when Spring Training rolls around.