A certain left-hander went 3-1 with a 1.70 ERA, a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, and a shutout mixed in across a dominant seven-start stretch. That had to be the type of performance the Detroit Tigers were hoping for after they acquired David Price, but instead that go down as the 2014 Tampa Bay Rays tenure of Drew Smyly. The Rays have officially shut down the 25 year old left-hander, lining up Nate Karns to start in his place for Friday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
It would have been nice for the Rays to have Smyly continuing to provide a reason for optimism for next season, but the time was right to shut him down. The Rays have little to play for at this point, and with innings becoming a concern for Smyly, there was no sense taking an unnecessary risk. As noted by Marc Topkin, Smyly was showing no signs of wearing down, but the Rays try to limit their starters to no more than a 20% increase in innings each season, and Smyly’s situation provided particular reason to be careful. He tossed just 76 innings last season as he worked primarily in relief, and his career-high of 126 innings pitched came back in 2011. Smyly’s 153 innings to finish the year give him a chance to reach 185 next year if his increases his total by 20% once again.
Another factor to consider for the Rays is that they know that Drew Smyly will be part of their rotation next season. Smyly had nothing more to prove to anyone after how well he has pitched, and the only question would be who would replace him in the Rays’ rotation. As it turns out, Nate Karns is the pitcher the Rays picked to receive an opportunity in Smyly’s place. Karns had quite the up-and-down season at Triple-A Durham, managing a 5.08 ERA, but his 153 strikeouts versus 62 walks were still impressive, as were his results in the second half. From July 11th to August 15th, Karns had a Smyly-esque stretch as he went 4-1 with a 1.58 ERA, and he finished off his season with a dominant 12-strikeout effort in a postseason start. The Rays will give him a chance to show that he can find results like that more consistently and carve out a career as a major league starting pitcher.
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What is funny about Karns replacing Smyly is that Karns is actually older than him by a year-and-a-half yet has just 12 big league innings pitched to Smyly’s 128.1. The two pitchers have been on precisely the opposite development paths–Karns didn’t pitch until two years after he was drafted because shoulder surgery while Smyly was in the big leagues two years after the Tigers selected him. Karns’ arsenal, however, is enough reason to overshadow all of his other deficiencies. With a mid-90’s fastball, an excellent slider, and a changeup that he has focused on this year, Karns can be an impressive pitcher if he can move past his command issues. It says a lot that the Rays are giving him this chance over the rest of the impressive Durham rotation, and we will have to see what he can make of it.
It is a little sad to see Drew Smyly’s season end prematurely, but Nate Karns will give Rays fans another reason for excitement as we see whether he can be the latest young pitcher to force his way into a role with the team. As has been the case with the Rays for years, one talented pitcher departs and another one with the ability to be impressive in his own right takes his place.