Just about everyone thought that Drew Smyly‘s season would be over when the diagnosis on his shoulder was a torn labrum, but Smyly is instead progressing towards a return to the Tampa Bay Rays as soon as next month. Smyly looked great in his bullpen session the other day, and the team is even saying that his torn labrum is an old injury and not directly related to his latest DL stint. They think that not only will Smyly return in August, but he will also avoid surgery for the foreseeable future. The Rays’ trade of David Price to get Smyly was looking horrible after Smyly’s injury, but now he will get back on the mound with a chance to make the deal worthwhile.
When the Rays acquired Smyly, an oft-repeated comment was “he may only be a number three starter, but don’t underestimate the value of such a pitcher, especially across more than four years of team control.” Then Smyly morphed into an entirely different pitcher with the Rays. Thanks to more fastballs up in the zone and more aggressive use of his cutter, Smyly masqueraded as an ace in his final seven starts of 2015. He also looked great after returning from his initial shoulder injury, pitching to a 2.70 ERA and a 21-3 strikeout to ratio in 16.2 innings pitched.
Has Smyly gone from a safe mid-rotation starter to a pitcher with frontline stuff who comes with much higher injury risk? It does seem like Smyly should be able to pitch better when healthy, but his durability was never great. He went on the DL once in 2011 and twice in 2012, so he was really only healthy for his season as a reliever in 2013 and one lone season as a starter the following year. His 153 innings pitched from 2014 are his career-high, and if he is going to be a great major league pitcher, he needs to be able to toss many more innings than that.
One question that could be asked is whether the Rays’ changes to Smyly’s repertoire did anything to cause his shoulder injury. Honestly, though, the fact that he was injured beforehand implies that the Rays did nothing wrong. Smyly has a very deceptive delivery that puts pressure on his shoulder, and unless the Rays want to change his delivery, his shoulder issues should persist. If he does need surgery at any point, he would likely come back with a different motion, but don’t expect anything that drastic to occur until Smyly’s prognosis looks that bad and he misses a year or more.
At the very least, the Tampa Bay Rays want Drew Smyly to remain healthy from his August return to the remainder of the season. Taking a quick tangent, it will be interesting to see who the Rays remove from the rotation to accommodate him–Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi‘s spots are safe, but Nate Karns, Erasmo Ramirez, or Matt Moore could be a possibility. Performance-wise, Moore looks like the obvious candidate, but he looked a touch better in his last start and the Rays still have high hopes for him.
What the Rays may end up doing is moving Ramirez to the bullpen in the short-term before moving him back to the rotation to limit Karns’ innings. Last season, Karns set his career-high with 157.1 innings, and he is on pace for over 185 this season. That is actually less than the 20% innings increase that would be the upper bound for his workload this season, but he could approach 200 innings next year even if only tossed 165 frames in 2015 and the Rays also want him to be available for the postseason if they make it.
In any event, the Rays are expecting more strong starts from Drew Smyly once he comes back and it will be interesting to see if they do anything differently with him to keep him on the field (e.g. taking him out of games earlier). The injury risk with Smyly is sky-high at this point, but they are hoping that any additional DL stints for him during his Rays tenure are closer to a month than a season and that his performance when he does take the ball will make him valuable even if he never turns into an 180-inning pitcher.
One additional piece of information that the Rays have is just how good Smyly was in relief in 2013. If the injuries ever get to be too much, they will simply move him to the bullpen, where he could be a late-inning arm while significantly increasing the probability that he stays healthy. Smyly turning into a reliever would not be what the Rays were hoping for after they acquired him, but they remain optimistic that he can keep starting–even if he will go on the DL at least occasionally–and it is nice to have the bullpen as a backup option.