Are the Cubs inching closer to unleashing their secret weapon?


Drew Smyly's potential return has been hovering over the Cubs as an enticing X-factor all season.

Will he pitch this season? If so, how will he be used and how effective will he be?

Labor Day weekend has passed and we still don't have any answers to these questions for a guy with a track record of success over more than 570 big-league innings, which is why Joe Maddon has referred to Smyly as a secret weapon for this Cubs team.

The 29-year-old southpaw threw a simulated game Tuesday afternoon, tossing 23 pitches against teammates Victor Caratini and Terrance Gore.

"[He looked] really good. Smyly was outstanding, actually," Maddon said. "That was really good Smyly. I've seen that in the past. The velocity was up, the carry was good on the pitch, the breaking ball was better.

"With another couple weeks to really get out and pitch, he'd be ready to do something. He was looking that good."

Meaning what?

"If he was able to be on a regular routine and stretched out, there's no telling what he could do right now. He looked that good."

Smyly was supposed to throw Monday with Triple-A Iowa, but the rain pushed it back to Tuesday. There are no more minor league games for Smyly to rehab in, so sim games are all he has right now as he works back from Tommy John surgery.

He did throw one inning with Class-A South Bend on August 30, striking out all three batters he faced.

At the moment, the Cubs don't have a next step mapped out for Smyly.

It's mostly about the recovery time right now for Smyly, who hasn't pitched in a big-league game since 2016.

Earlier in the season, the Cubs had talked about potentially utilizing Smyly out of the bullpen or even supplementing the rotation if everything went well. A spot start seems out of reach at this point with less than four weeks left in the season, but Maddon acknowledged Smyly could probably pitch an inning in a game right now. 

Smyly's rehab got stuck in neutral for most of August because of the recovery issue. After throwing in higher-intensity outings like sim games, the muscle soreness would linger for a few days since he went so long without using all those muscles.

That recovery time hasn't been an issue of late, he said, and that's a cause for optimism.

"I feel strong, I feel healthy," Smyly said. "It's a fun time right now. I'm excited to keep moving forward. ... The recovery phase of pitching — facing hitters, letting it go and then waking up a day or two later and feel good enough to continue throwing.

"That was kind of what held me back the last six weeks. Since I started ramping it up again, it just feels way different. Everything's coming a little more easier. It feels fresh. It's a good thing right now."

Smyly said he would love to pitch again this season, but knows there's a bigger picture and ultimately, it will be up to the Cubs front office, coaching staff and training staff to make that call.

He approached Tuesday's sim game like a tryout of sorts, trying to impress the Cubs decision-makers and show them he should be pitching in the big leagues.

"In my mind, I'm close," he said. "I finally feel like my arm's coming around and it's showing signs of being normal again."

Smyly fully acknowledges the mental hurdle he had to get over with his surgically-repaired elbow. Even though he's fully healthy now, the feeling in the elbow was still a conscious thought at the front of his brain — especially when snapping off a curveball.

Not to mention the patience of a recovery process that has kept him out of action for nearly two full MLB seasons right in the midst of his prime.

"The mental aspect — there's been a lot of lonely days, a lot of daydreaming about the future days," Smyly said. "It's hard to stay in the present moment. You just want to keep looking forward to the day you get to pitch and the day you're healthy again. 

"So it's been a long road for me. I can tell I'm getting to the end, but the live BP session today went amazing and I think I opened some eyes with the coaches that are watching behind. I'm just excited to keep moving forward."

Over the final few weeks of the regular season, the bullpen will be one of the main talking points on a daily basis. 

There are so many questions still unanswered about how the Cubs will construct a postseason bullpen (assuming they make the postseason) with guys like Smyly and Brandon Morrow recovering from injury.

With the Cubs still looking for more stability among their left-handed relievers beyond Justin Wilson, a guy like Smyly could come in handy if he is able to ramp it back up.

After all, he has a career 2.47 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 in 87.1 innings of relief.

So can he be a secret weapon for the Cubs in the final month of the regular season and possibly into the playoffs?

"I hope I can be," Smyly said. "I'm just looking forward to play and being a part of this team a little more. Any way I can help in September would be great and hopefully I can just keep progressing through the end of the month and we'll see where it leads me."

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