Tampa Bay Rays: Pros and Cons of Moving Drew Smyly To Relief


Drew Smyly could return to the Tampa Bay Rays next month, but do the Rays really need him as a starting pitcher? The Rays have the fifth-best rotation ERA in baseball despite all of their injuries, and it is really their bullpen that needs help. After its recent stretch of struggles, the relief corps now has just a 3.95 ERA, the seventh-worst mark in baseball. In terms of FIP (which estimates what ERA should be based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed), the Rays actually have the third-worst bullpen in baseball. Drew Smyly could change that entirely.

The thought of Smyly moving to the bullpen came to me as I was writing my most recent piece about him, and further points about the topic were brought up in the comments. There is certainly an argument to be made that Smyly should not start another game for the Rays this season and maybe ever. Smyly had a 2.37 ERA in 63 appearances in relief for the Tigers in 2013, and that was before the recent improvements that the Rays made to his arsenal. If he moved to shorter stints now, he could easily become one of the best relievers in baseball.

More from Rays Colored Glasses

We know that starting pitchers are always more valuable than relievers, and if Smyly can be an ace-type pitcher, that would certainly be enough reason to move a different Rays starter to the bullpen. However, we know that he has a torn labrum, and even though it looks like he will somehow get past the injury without surgery, it is only a matter of time until he goes on the DL again. Pitching in relief would give Smyly the chance to continue dominating while giving him the best possible chance to stay healthy. Add in the fact that the Rays bullpen needs a guy like him anyway, and moving Smyly to a relief role makes a lot of sense.

The counterargument comes on three different fronts: suddenness and the availability of alternatives. First, let’s go through the two bad counterarguments, the way Smyly was acquired and the money he is making. How could the Rays make the centerpiece of their David Price deal into a reliever? Well, it would have been nice if Smyly could have started, but what’s done is done and the best thing for Smyly moving forward is to pitch in shorter stints. The Rays aren’t going to lose sight of reality just because they got Smyly in exchange for Price.

On the monetary side, Smyly is making $2.65 million this year in his first go-around through arbitration as a Super Two, and while that won’t go up much after his injury plagued season, even $3 million is more than the Rays usually pay relievers. However, if Smyly is a great reliever, the Rays would gladly pay his salary. The money factor is a bigger deal for Wade Davis, whose team-friendly extension as a starter wasn’t as favorable once he moved to the bullpen, but Smyly won’t be making big money until 2017 at the earliest, and if he is by that point, it would only be because he pitched extremely well.

However, asking Smyly to suddenly move to relief now may be a sketchy proposition. The Rays saw Jeff Niemann require shoulder surgery immediately after losing the team’s fifth starter competition to Roberto Hernandez, and one cited reason was that he no longer had time between starts for his arm to recover. Every pitcher is different, but we can say that being a reliever would only help Smyly stay healthy under certain circumstances. If he was ramping up his velocity and/or pitching three days in a row, that might only make things worse.

More from Rays News

Unless the Rays saw the future and realized that they were going to want Smyly to come back as a reliever, he has been preparing the last few months to return as a starting pitcher. Altering that mindset now, this late in the process, is a recipe for disaster. It is tough enough to ask a healthy pitcher to switch roles, and doing so with an injured pitcher might be even crazier. If the Rays really want to convert Smyly to relief, their best idea may be to let him start the remainder of the season–hopefully his shoulder can hold up for just 8 to 10 more starts–and then give him the entire offseason to prepare to become a reliever.

The other factor to consider is that a guy like Nate Karns or Erasmo Ramirez could also become a bullpen weapon–it’s not as though Smyly is the only candidate. Ramirez pitched in relief earlier this year and posted a 1.80 ERA and an 8-1 strikeout to walk ratio after getting shelled in his first relief appearance. Given how good he has looked as a starter and the fact that he actually relieved (and even pitched on consecutive days) earlier this year, Ramirez is a more-than-reasonable possibility to fill the role that Wade Davis filled in 2012 and Alex Torres occupied the following year.

Karns and Alex Colome, meanwhile, both throw hard enough that they wouldn’t even need to reach back for anything extra in shorter stints. Colome is already in relief, and while he has struggled so far, he has the stuff to acclimate well to his new role with time. The same is true of Karns, who will also be approaching his innings limit as the season nears its conclusion. If the Rays think that Smyly’s health can hold up for a month and a half, he is a better starter than Karns or Ramirez (and obviously Colome) and one of the others could help the bullpen in the meantime.

At the end of the day, it seems unlikely that Smyly will rejoin the Tampa Bay Rays as a reliever when he is ready to return. Smyly would be under strict limitations if the Rays converted him to the bullpen this late in his recovery while a guy like Ramirez or Karns would be under no such restrictions. Smyly also happens to be an excellent starting pitcher, and if he can’t even stay healthy for eight more starts with rest in between, then it would be hard to believe that he could hold up in relief for an entire season.

The argument to convert Smyly to the bullpen for the long-term is sound–the Rays will have to take a look at that possibility following the year–but for the short-term, it makes sense for him to keep starting. Unless Smyly’s injury is bad enough that he would be extremely likely to get injured if he took the ball as a starter again, bad enough that the Rays’ choice would be between having Smyly as a reliever they can use every other day or not having him at all, the conversation about moving him to relief should be tabled for now and resumed in a few months.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: 2015 Draftees Rebound