The Cubs are dealing with a fairly significant assortment of pitching injuries right now, with one of their top starters, Yu Darvish, on the shelf with triceps inflammation, their top relievers, Carl Edwards Jr., out with a sore shoulder, and another reliever, Eddie Butler (groin injury), whose face will soon have to go on the back of a milk carton.
And while one of their offseason signings, Drew Smyly, won’t likely be able to back-fill any of their work in the next few weeks, his return could come sooner than conservatively expected: “I just have to keep building up, facing some competition,” Smyly said via Cubs.com. “Right now it’s exciting, because it’s been a long road of not much competition, not much throwing. I’ve built up my bullpen [sessions], and now I’m facing hitters. I feel I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s exciting to have a hitter in the box and get my adrenaline going.”
On Friday afternoon, Smyly, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, threw his second live batting-practice session at Wrigley Field, facing three of his Cubs teammates in front of Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. He threw 25 pitches in that session and will do so one more time before flipping the switch to simulated games. After that, he’ll begin a rehab assignment (sometime in early July is the current estimate) and, on the most aggressive timeline, could become available before the Trade Deadline. But given that we were mostly prepared for him to miss the entire 2018 season (or, at best, return as a reliever (which, to be sure, might still be the case, depending on the state of the rotation and his own rehab)), this is pretty exciting news.
And more importantly, Smyly seems to be in a very good, hungry spirit, feeling strong and pain-free: “With each time, I feel a little less and less hesitation,” Smyly said of his outings. “With my curveball, I don’t think I snapped it down yet. With my fastball and changeup, [the hesitation] is kind of gone and I can forget about my elbow and pitch. That’s a really good feeling. It’s basically a year since I’ve been pain-free.”
For his part, Maddon was impressed with the session, praising Smyly’s delivery, the looseness of his arm, and the command and carry of his pitches.
Now, setbacks can and will happen, but it’s hard to ignore how optimistic everyone seems to be. And even I’ve begun to dream on what could happen if he returns healthy in the second-half of the year. Think about it: if Smyly can come back sometime in early August, he’ll have two months to show he’s worthy of a roster spot come October. It might not be the sexiest addition the Cubs have made mid-season, but his arrival on the scene is almost like trading for another pitcher mid-year. It would be a welcomed boost, whether in the bullpen or the rotation, depending on the team’s needs.
But even if you keep 2018 out of the picture, getting Smyly back this year – and showing he is where he was pre-surgery – is still a good thing for 2019, the second and final year he’s under contract with the Cubs. Getting him back this season not only makes his Opening Day health in 2019 more likely, it also gets him back in front of Major League hitters sooner than later. That’ll help him get back on track and help the Cubs more quickly/accurately develop a plan for next season.
Smyly is still just 28 and has put together some really nice seasons in the past. We probably shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves on this one – even if Tommy John surgery recovery rates are very good these days – but I certainly understand the excitement and optimism. One day at a time, etc., etc., but so far so good.