Quick, without looking it up:
Who’s the Cubs’ starting pitcher with the best ERA on the active roster?
Could it be the same guy the Cubs lock in for next year as a head start on bolstering the rotation?
The first question’s easy: The answer is Drew Smyly, with a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts after a seven-inning bounce-back win against the Giants in Friday’s series opener.
The second question — a $10 million question, in fact — should be even easier.
The Cubs have promised to spend this winter to improve their bad and rebuilding ballclub, and that should include at least one frontline quality starter— such as Giants starter Carlos Rodón, who struck out 11 Cubs to add to his league-leading total and has a 2.93 ERA in his second straight All-Star season.
But how much bigger does that theoretical frontline starter play with Smyly locked in as one of the following, returning starters at $10 million — the cost of his mutual option for 2023?
- LHP Justin Steele, 3.18 ERA, 24 starts, 119 IP in 2022, pre-arbitration in 2023.
- RHP Marcus Stroman, 3.73, 20, 108 2/3, $25 million.
- RHP Kyle Hendricks, 4.80, 16, 84 1/3, $14 million.
- LHP Drew Smyly, 3.57, 20, 98 1/3, $10 million.
Keegan Thompson and possibly Adrian Sampson could return as depth as well after strong performances this season.
But there’s a reason the Cubs went back to Smyly, getting creative with the option — the same reason the Cubs gave him a two-year deal five years ago when he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“It’s why he’s been on so many teams trying to get him back,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Because when he’s healthy, you know what kind of pitcher you’re capable of getting.”
A pitcher like the one the Giants got in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, whose eye-popping strikeout rate and command in limited work, helped get him get a deal with the Braves and a ring last year.
A pitcher like the one who had a 0.90 ERA in five August starts before a clunker Saturday in St. Louis — then an eight-strikeout response against the Giants Friday.
“That was probably the outlier,” Ross said of the Cardinals start. “We’re more used to seeing a lot of this.”
Smyly, who missed two seasons because of the 2017 Tommy John surgery, said he hasn’t felt as locked in since the surgery as he does now except for that abbreviated 2020 with the Giants — when a minor finger injury limited an already short season to five starts and two relief appearances.
“It’s definitely nice to feel confident, in synch with your mechanics and be able to go out there and trust yourself,” he said.
He has made it clear more than once this season that he loves pitching at Wrigley Field — “it’s very special” — and wants to stay (his home ERA is 2.38 in eight starts this year, for what it’s worth).
The main benefit to both parties with the extension is to build a $1 million guarantee (through the buyout) to sweeten the 2022 deal.
But Smyly "would love" for the Cubs to approach him about exercising the option or to discuss a restructured future with the club.
After the way he's pitched this season, it wouldn't be a bad call to explore just picking up their end of the option (assuming he doesn't in turn opt out). Even if the $10 million sounds like a lot for a pitcher who has averaged five innings a start, it’s only a one-year commitment for a team that might feel some pressure to turn a winning corner after two payroll-slashed seasons of losing.
They might even consider it the same payroll slot on the roster occupied this season by Wade Miley (five starts, 23 innings during injury-plagued, $10-million 2022).
Including performance bonuses (so far), Smyly has earned $4.9 million this year (plus the $1 million back-end buyout).
Maybe a two-year extension for the respected 33-year-old would work?
Whatever Ross’ input might be on the matter with the front office, he seems impressed with what he’s seen, especially after the perseverance Smyly showed on what at times was a long path back to health and consistency.
“You never know somebody’s true character till you’re with them every single day and how bad they want to be out there,” Ross said. “To manage him and watch him go about his business and continue to want to go out there, stay out there — it’s just really rewarding when you watch him pitch to see it finally paying off.
“He’s been such a big piece for us.”