Tampa Bays Rays Drew Smyly: Breakout Candidate in 2016

As the holidays have rolled in, player movement usually slows down giving us a chance to look ahead to 2016 to possibly begin uncovering some breakout candidates. Each year this process is vital because it can net you such breakout stars like Dallas Keuchel or A.J. Pollock. One of my favorite breakout candidates for 2016 is, Drew Smyly.

The 26-year-old lefty is entering his fifth pro season and still seems to have barely unearthed his potential. He still has not been able to go through a full season as a starter as the most starts he has be able to amass in one season has been 25 in 2014. This yo-yoing in between the rotation and bullpen seems to be over though as the Rays look for him to become a co-ace with Chris Archer in 2016.

Smyly’s 2016 was largely derailed after an early season shoulder injury. He would go on to close out the season with 12 starts, which were very successful and downright impressive. He would go on to win five of those starts while only posting a 3.11 ERA and he struck out 77 over 66 innings pitched.The optimism for next season being a breakout for Smyly is directly tied to a change in his arsenal and pitching approach. Even though it was a small sample size in 2015, Smyly’s SO/9 jumped to 10.4 which was a near three strikeout per game increase from 2014. Now, some may chalk this up to his limited innings, but if we dive deeper we can see that he has changed some things.

Prior to 2015, Smyly was mostly a fastball/curveball combo pitcher, and sprinkled in a change-up and cutter at times. But, over his 12 starts last season, he altered this approach and became essentially a fastball/cutter pitcher. He uses his fastball more to get ahead in the count and by now highlighting his cutter more he is able to either bury it in on righties or attack lefties away in the zone. If we look at his splits last season we can see that he was successful in getting lefties and righties out. He held righties to a .249 AVG and dominated lefties to a tune of only allowing a .157 AVG.

His newfound approach and effective usage has me a believer in his upside, especially strikeout wise where his 2015 uptick looks like a legit improvement. Combine that with his decent control and you have a pitcher that looks the part of a pitcher that could turn into a fantasy gem. Smyly comes with his fair share of warning flags as well which can either discourage you from taking him or allows his draft stock to remain in the later rounds. Pitching in the AL East in never fun, so Smyly will have to battle small ballparks and good lineups all season. He does happen to have the most pitcher friendly home ballpark out of the whole division, so that helps some.

But the biggest red flag Smyly has, is his health. For one, we have never seen him pitch more than 155 innings nor start more than 25 games in any season which raises doubts on his durability.Then there is the shoulder issue last season. Any arm injury is scary, but shoulder problems can be especially troublesome. The Rays did handle him carefully all season, so hopefully the 12 strong starts he was able to post point to him being good to go next season.

Now I am not going to label Smyly as the 2016 edition of Dallas Keuchel, but there are enough positive signs that would lead owners to monitor Smyly throughout the spring. He should be on everyone’s radar and if he looks good in Spring Training, he will climb even further up the SP rankings.