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  • Choosing Drew Smyly Over Jordan Wicks for Tuesday Night is Stupid

    Matt Trueblood

    The Cubs will send Drew Smyly to the mound to start Tuesday night's game in Detroit. That's a mistake, and a bizarre one, given their other recent choices.

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    With the fifth spot in the Cubs' rotation coming up for the first time in a week and a half, a decision was due at the end of the team's series against the Royals at Wrigley Field Sunday. During their three-game set in Detroit to open a weeklong road trip, the Cubs will send Javier Assad to the mound Monday night, then let Drew Smyly return to the rotation Tuesday. In doing so, they'll eschew the opportunity to call up lefty prospect Jordan Wicks for that start. That's a glaring error, and one that should surprise and disappoint Cubs fans.

    Over the last month, David Ross and Jed Hoyer have given both voice and action to the notion of a sterner meritocracy governing the construction and usage of their roster. They traded for Jeimer Candelario to bolster the lineup, and in so doing, they said goodbye to the underachieving Trey Mancini. They also used that acquisition to (temporarily) disenfranchise Seiya Suzuki, giving more playing time to Mike Tauchman, despite the massive difference in the level of organizational investment in those two players. Earlier this weekend, they parted ways with Tucker Barnhart, another player to whom they were financially committed for 2024, because he was no longer able to help the team win.

    A fortnight ago, they had the same clarity about Smyly. He was demoted to the bullpen, amid a tailspin that has lasted considerably longer than did his impressive start to the season. He's looked better in short relief work, and given that he's a two-pitch pitcher anyway, it seemed like a tidy fit for him. Even so, when it became clear on Tuesday that Marcus Stroman would not be returning to claim this fifth slot in the starting rotation, Ross nodded in Smyly's direction from the beginning.

    That was fine, insofar as it was a gesture of organizational loyalty and commitment to a veteran player who will probably return next year in some capacity. Now that it seems to have been an earnest declaration, though, it looks like an unwelcome departure from the new mode the team adopted after its season-saving winning jag in July. 

    In his last 13 starts (and start-like appearances, when Smyly worked behind openers Hayden Wesneski and Michael Fulmer), the aging southpaw had a 7.22 ERA, and there was not one iota of bad luck involved. He allowed 17 home runs in those 13 outings, and opponents batted .312/.380/.592. Pitchers who looked even more cooked than this have come back from the brink of unusability, but the odds are against Smyly being a successful starter again anytime in 2023.

    By not trading for reinforcements for the rotation at the trade deadline, the front office voluntarily left themselves open to the possibility of needing stop this particular gap. That was probably a miscalculation, but it did make some sense, given where they were when the deadline came and what it would have cost to add more than a backend starter on an expiring contract. The wall into which any justification of using Smyly this week runs is not about a player who might theoretically have been available three weeks ago; it's about one whom the team should have called up from its top minor-league affiliate.

    Jordan Wicks was the Cubs' first-round pick in 2021, which means that he hasn't yet been added to the 40-man roster. In fact, he doesn't even need to be added to that list this winter, which means that bringing him up to the parent club this year would be a proactive profession of faith in him. It wouldn't have to cost them anyone on the current 40-man roster, because they currently have two open spots, but it would force some early and difficult decisions this winter. That does have to be accounted for. Surely, the Cubs wish that Ben Brown were healthy right now, or that Caleb Kilian had figured things out to the extent they hoped when they recalled him earlier this month.

    Sometimes, though, it's the front office's job to embrace future headaches in exchange for making a playoff-capable team better in the short term. This is one of those times. Wicks saw an uptick in his fastball velocity in his most recent start with the Iowa Cubs, and with even that small bump, he profiles as a starter who can effectively go through an MLB lineup twice. In that same start, he also debuted a reengineered slider, with a combination of firm velocity and tilt that he hadn't previously shown in Triple A.Brooksbaseball-Chart (69).jpeg

    In fact, Wicks's whole movement profile made more sense in this latest outing than in any of his previous ones at Triple A. He's getting more run on his sinker, so he can lose some of the depth and sweep on his slider without losing the effectiveness of that movement. It becomes easier to command, and easier to land for strikes, but not materially more likely to be hit hard. Those two pitches--the sinker and the slider--will be his bread and butter against lefties initially.

    Against righties, Wicks is a four-seamer and changeup guy, and he uses the curveball to change eye levels. That pitch had more depth on it than ever in his last appearance, and the extra velocity on the fastball only accentuated the contrast there. He's not yet a fully-formed mid-rotation starter, but he's taken major steps in that direction. The Cubs could and should have called him up to pitch Tuesday night with confidence, especially since the date beyond which his rookie status will be intact for 2024 has now passed. 

    Maybe Smyly is a glorified opener, himself. If the Cubs intend to start him Tuesday night, but then swap him out for Wesneski after an inning or two, that's a fine stratagem. If they make it a bullpen game, sandwiched between what they surely hope will be long outings by Assad and Jameson Taillon against a weak Tigers lineup, that's acceptable, but it risks tiring out that relief corps at the front end of a long and crucial stretch during which they'll play 27 games in the same number of days. (Their only off day between last Thursday and Sept. 14 comes on Aug. 31, and it's immediately canceled out by a doubleheader in Cincinnati the next day.)

    At some point during the next month, the Cubs will need Wicks. As their upper-level pitching depth has been thinned by injuries and some truly nightmarish implosions, they've gotten steadily closer to being truly desperate. It would make more sense to work Wicks in now than to blindly hope that Smyly figured something out during a side session that he can bring back with him from short relief to the starting staff. Instead, the team is back to betting on a questionable veteran, rather than trusting and trying it with a younger and more talented player. 

    Normally, this would be the kind of small thing at which we could shrug and grumble, but over which no serious worry would be warranted. Unfortunately, the Cubs haven't put themselves in a normal position. This is a contending team, with every bit of the talent possessed by any of the teams with whom they're vying for playoff spots, but they still bear the standings scars of their long period of mismanagement and underperformance in May and June. They also haven't fully availed themselves of opportunities to create a little more margin for error. They went 3-2 this week, but 3-2 at home (with plenty of chances gone by the wayside in the losses) at home against the Royals and White Sox only constitutes holding serve. 

    All of that means that the Cubs need to treat every game as winnable and important. Starting Smyly sends the message that they still think they can afford to go easy now and then. It would be great if that were true, especially with the grueling schedule ahead. Alas, it ain't so. Wicks might make a start in Pittsburgh, or next week in Cincinnati, but if the team doesn't leave with at least a series win in Detroit, the pressure eventually placed on the young hurler will only increase.

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    This is maybe oversimplified, but this is how I see it.  Smyly does not look *incapable* of still getting out major league hitters, he hasn't lost a fistful of velocity or gotten rocked all year, so his individual performance comes down to him dialing in command and otherwise having his mechanics ironed out.  I'm not overly optimistic about him going lights out for 6 weeks, but I'm not treating his current state as static.  Wicks is a good prospect, but he's also one who does not have overwhelming velocity, and his AAA performance doesn't illustrate a mastery of that level to give me confidence he's a day 1 MLB success.  Even his recent form which some have trumpeted is showing middling swing and miss and a lack of elite control to pair with that average K rate.  If the question was 'are these 2 similar enough options that it's worth bedding in Wicks so he can play a more meaningful 2024 role', then I get that argument and would probably lean towards it.  But to answer the question 'we need the best possible option to win this game or the next couple games' I can't possibly see it as black and white that the changeup artist with the 4.23 FIP in AAA is unquestionably a better bet than Smyly figuring his struggles out out like he has a number of times at the MLB level.

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    There is also a publicly unknown factor with Wicks, in that the Cubs will have him on a pitch/innings limit, although we don't know what those limits are at this time.  Wicks just eclipsed last year's IP mark, and likely will end up pitching roughly another 20-40 innings before being shut down again for the season.

    I'd love to see what Wicks could do, but my concern is his secondary stuff isn't quite at the point where he could get by if he lost a tick or two on his fastball due to fatigue.

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    Another factor with Wicks is mentioned in the article. He's still in the midst of honing his stuff at AAA. Even just optimizing things for this season, he's not going to be reliable in the short term as he's still adjusting to the AAA level. And even if he succeeds in the short term, he doesn't have enough innings left to fill in as a starter for the rest of the year (as OO just pointed out, he's already past his career high in IP). 

    I'd give Smyly at least this turn to see if he can get back on track and give Wicks another turn or two in AAA to stabilize things while controlling his innings there.

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    I just would have been very surprised to see Wicks on Tuesday. He's only pitched once this year on a normal five-day schedule. That was his 7/18 followed by 7/23 starts. He's almost always getting 6, 7, or even more days off in between starts. Totally fair to open up that can of worms about the Cubs' conservative style, but still think purely with the Wicks decision I'd say the Wednesday in Detroit or Thursday in Pittsburgh might make more sense. And complementing O_O's post above, it's probably best to have Wicks with as much rest as possible. His fastball had more zip than normal his past turn. Hoping that continues the rest of the way.

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    The Cubs prospect of 2023 story: You don't have to actually be good at AAA for people to be stanning for you to get MLB playing time.

    Edited by Hairyducked Idiot
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