Smyly tests new pitches in latest spring outing

Cubs preaching patience when determining who will fill DH role

March 1st, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- Only in Spring Training could a pitcher allowing five runs on seven hits in two innings be considered a strong workout.

The scoreboard didn’t favor left-handed starter in the Cubs’ 10-9 loss to the Rockies at Sloan Park on Thursday, their sixth game of the spring. Smyly wasn’t on the mound looking for stats or even situational pitches, though.

It was simply a workout to take some developing pitches out for a stroll, from his changeup to a new splitter and slider.

“You kind of have to discredit the results because I was putting a lot of hitters back in the count where I probably could have had a chance to finish them much earlier,” Smyly said. “But I was being stubborn by trying to throw pitches I might not normally throw -- just to want to see a result out of it.”

Ultimately the 10-year MLB veteran and third-year Cubs hurler came away with more answers than questions.

“The ball was coming out really well,” Smyly said. “My fastball seems really hoppy, especially.”

He was eventually lifted after facing four batters without registering an out in the third inning. Non-roster invitee Chris Clarke came on in relief.

“In the third I started to fatigue a little bit,” said Smyly, who made his second appearance of the spring. “It was one of those games where I could tell early on my fastball felt really good. ... But also one of those Spring Training games where I’ve got to throw all these other pitches.”

Smyly is part of the mix competing for the starting rotation’s last spot when the regular season opens on March 28 against the World Series champion Rangers in Texas. Kyle Hendricks, Shota Imanaga, Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon figure to be there, with fifth-spot candidates ranging from Javier Assad to Hayden Wesneski to Jordan Wicks to Smyly.

Manager Craig Counsell also noted on Thursday that perhaps even a sixth starter may earn a roster spot rather than start the year in the Minors.

“That’s a possibility for sure,” the first-year Cubs skipper said. “But I also think at some point that guy doesn’t become your sixth because he’s been shortened up. So I think that could happen. I really think we’re well positioned right now where our young pitching is. We’re going to be talking about more than six, I can promise you that.”

Elsewhere on Thursday, infielders making up the 2-3-4 spots in the batting order made their presence felt. Shortstop Dansby Swanson reached twice and scored a run, third baseman Christopher Morel had two hits and scored twice to raise his spring average to .375 and second baseman Nico Hoerner, in the cleanup spot, lined a two-run single in the third.

Relief catcher Joe Hudson threw out two runners trying to steal second.

Patience vs. Energy
It’s been 11 days since the Cubs’ first official full-squad workout. As camp turns the page into March, there’s less than a month until the final Cactus League game.

So this in-between period still won’t see deeper outings from pitchers or full days for position players. And yet, almost two weeks in, that unmistakable energy of live games and routines is also creeping in.

Call it a battle of keeping a measured pace for the long season ahead versus getting mentally into the fiery grind.

“Learning to take care of your energy is a huge deal,” Hoerner said. “Overall you’re wired to want to do more and work more, and finding the sweet spot of where you’re getting what you need but also a chance to rest. I got a little better at that last year.”

It’s not just muscle memory tempting veteran players to reach for that special gear they’ll need in the regular season. Younger players seeing competition tightening could find themselves pressing too much too soon.

“How you tackle each day and how you tackle the games could be different,” Patrick Wisdom said while looking back on lessons he’s learned about spring. “Are you going all-out and exhausting yourself? Maybe I was, yeah probably. Now you learn that there are ways to go about it.”

Don’t worry about the DH
Counsell confirmed on Thursday that he doesn’t expect newly re-signed Cody Bellinger to play in a game for seven to 10 days as the 2023 NL Comeback Player of the Year acclimates to camp.

While Bellinger is primed to return as the everyday option in center field, flanked by two-time Gold Glover Ian Happ in left and Seiya Suzuki in right, one spot in the batting order remains undecided -- DH.

“It’s the spot I’ve thought the least about. That probably means that it’s going to be a bunch of guys,” Counsell said. “Right now I’m viewing it as very open and uncommitted.”

With the Bellinger signing now a done deal, could the Cubs still add another piece? Not likely, added Counsell.

“You’re at the time of the year where you start in your head looking at rosters for sure, and that’s with the guys here, absolutely,” he said.