The last time Drew Smyly was seen on a big-league mound in a big-league game was Sept. 26, 2016, at the home of the Chicago White Sox, whatever it was called back then.
He threw 97 pitches in five innings, allowing three runs on seven hits and a walk in his 11th loss of the season for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Here’s what followed: Smyly was traded to the Seattle Mariners, injured in spring training, operated on in July and non-tendered in early December. The Chicago Cubs picked him up, even though he was recovering from Tommy John surgery and there was the risk he wouldn’t pitch for them in 2018.
Or, as it turns out, ever.
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He was traded to the Texas Rangers in November, essentially a cash swap as the Rangers paid the Cubs $6 million after they exercised their option on Cole Hamels and traded Smyly and the $7 million left on his deal.
The trade assured Smyly of a spot in the starting rotation that he hopes to be able to fill 30-plus times this season. He was among the 40 pitchers who reported to Rangers spring training Tuesday along with five catchers.
And, like others in the rotation, he brought with him concerns about his health. Smyly, though, doesn’t have any concerns.
“I feel healthy, I feel excited and I’m ready to get going,” Smyly said. “It’s been a very normal offseason for me. All the rehab, I basically got it out of the way last season, so I went into this offseason thinking, ‘You’re healthy, just like any other pitcher.’”
Smyly is projected to be part of a rotation that includes fellow left-hander Mike Minor, the front-runner to be the Opening Day starter, and right-handers Lance Lynn, Edinson Volquez and Shelby Miller.
Volquez and Miller also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, though only Miller pitched last season. Volquez spent the season rehabbing with the Rangers, and Miller pitched ineffectively before dealing with some lingering elbow issues.
Volquez underwent the elbow-ligament replacement for the second time in his career while with the Miami Marlins, and said that coming back was a longer process. He threw four bullpen sessions ahead of camp and said that likes where he is.
“The way I feel right now, I think I’m going to be good,” Volquez said. “We’ll see what I can do know. I haven’t pitched in two years. I’m excited. I let it go a little bit on the last two bullpens, and I felt good the next day. That’s what you want.”
Lynn had Tommy John surgery in 2016 but has pitched the past two seasons healthy, and Minor showed he could be a starter again after an odyssey with a balky shoulder in 2015 and 2016 and work as a reliever in 2017.
The Rangers have little concern about either of them, and seem satisfied with where the other three are. Nevertheless, there will be questions until they go out and perform.
“A lot of us you can mark as a question mark,” Smyly said. “But if we perform to our capabilities, I think we’ll be good. It’s a veteran staff. We’ve all been there and done that.”
Smyly knows that he relies on command, and that often is the last thing that comes back for a pitcher coming off Tommy John. He has some curiosity, recognizes some unknowns, but isn’t short on confidence.
“I don’t know how it’s going to react because I haven’t pitched every five days,” he said. “I got into a minor-league game last year. I feel like I got over the hump. I just didn’t pitch in a major-league game. For me, it’s just being able to come back.
“It’s no secret it’s been a few years since I played. It’s like a new start almost, like your rookie year again. It’s like I’m getting thrown out there and have to go prove it. That’s the mentality I have to take. As long as I’m healthy and my arm’s cooperating, I know what I’m capable of doing. I’m just looking forward to having that opportunity.”
Miller pitched in the majors last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he struggled as his elbow became inflamed after his return. But he made one appearance in late September and entered the offseason knowing he was healthy.
It was a normal offseason, which allowed him to focus more on conditioning and to refine his mechanics.
“Just to finally know going into a season I’m healthy and I’m not going to have any setbacks, I was really optimistic about that,” Miller said. “I’m really looking forward to what this season is going to bring. I’m really confident in what I’ve done this offseason to get to where I need to be back to getting big-league hitters out at an efficient rate.”
Staying healthy isn’t just the key for Smyly, Volquez and Miller, it’s key for all five projected starters as well as those who will be called upon at various points during the season. Yohander Mendez and Ariel Jurado top that list, and prospects Taylor Hearn and Jonathan Hernandez are expected to make their MLB debuts this season.
Spring training is about not getting injured. Pitchers and catchers have their first spring workout Wednesday.
“Some of our starters that are coming back from missing time last year, I’m definitely interested in seeing where they are,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “They’re clinically healthy, but from a baseball standpoint, how much are they ready to take on workload-wise and how does that affect the rest of our staff? That will be a big one for us.”