The Royals need starting pitching now and for the future, having put up the fourth-worst starting pitching ERA in the American League last year. Pitchers like Jason Vargas Matt Strahm, and even Mike Minor may be able to help next year, but all are question marks heading into 2017 and teams really need 7-8 starting pitchers before a season is said and done.
In other words, the Royals could really use some depth. While they may not able to afford any front line starters, they could use some more mid-rotation guys, especially pitchers at a decent price. Trades seems like the best way to pursue starting pitching, and the Tampa Bay Rays will reportedly look to deal from their stable full of arms. The Royals don’t have the prospects to pursue a Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi, but they might have the means to acquire an arm like left-hander Drew Smyly.
The 27-year old Smyly was a teammate of Brett Eibner’s on the Arkansas Razorbacks before the Detroit Tigers selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft. In 2014, he went to Tampa Bay in a three-team trade that netted the Tigers David Price, ending the season with a 3.24 ERA in 153 innings. In 2015, he suffered a partial labrum tear that kept him out for three months. He managed a 3.11 ERA in 12 starts with 77 strikeouts in just 66 2⁄3 innings.
Last year was the first season in which he made 30 or more starts in a season, and he took a step backwards, posting a 4.88 ERA with a 4.49 FIP in a career-high 175 1⁄3 innings. His 103 runs allowed were the eighth-most in the American League, and his 1.64 home runs-per-nine-innings rate was fourth-highest in baseball.
So why should the Royals be interested in him? Well, he reminds me of a younger, cheaper Ian Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Smyly can miss some bats. He struck out 8.6 per-nine-innings last year, right in line with his career strikeout rate in 85 career Major League starts. He also had a bit of poor luck, at least in his left-on-base rate last season. He had just 67.7% of his baserunners stranded, below the MLB average of 72.9%, suggesting that if he regresses to the mean, fewer of his baserunners will score next year.
Smyly looks to pound the ball up in the zone with a fastball that averages 90 mph. The Rays want him to take the same approach Dave Eiland talked about with Kennedy, throwing a rising fastball to induce pop-ups and flyouts.
Shortly after the trade, Ken Rosenthal wrote a notes column, in which he talked about how the Rays wanted Smyly to use more high fastballs. They didn’t want to change his repertoire so much as they wanted to change how he used it. Smyly throws a four-seamer with atypical rise, and those pitches get whiffs when they’re elevated.
Like Kennedy, Smyly is an extreme flyball pitcher. He had the second-highest flyball rate in baseball last year at 49.3%. Smyly did have the benefit of playing in front of Kevin Kiermaier, one of the most amazing defensive outfielders in baseball right now, but the rest of the Rays outfielder is quite average. Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg was not much of a home run park, and Smyly did give up half of his 32 home runs at home last year.
However moving to Kauffman Stadium could be a slight benefit to him, and having all-world defenders at all three outfield positions could help him even more. Eno Sarris at Fangraphs also suggested that Smyly was a bit unlucky in his home runs because of his low exit velocity. The lefty ended with one of the lower average exit velocities on flyballs and line drives last year at 90.5 mph.
We saw how a move to Kansas City benefitted Ian Kennedy, as he put up surprisingly good numbers for the Royals. Drew Smyly might benefit from a similar transition - only this won’t cost the Royals $70 million. Smyly is under club control for the next two seasons, and will likely earn close to $7 million next season. He has some red flags, but that will only drive the price down. It will still likely cost a decent prospect for the Royals - Hunter Dozier might have to be the return - but the Royals could get a mid-rotation starter that can help them win now without breaking the bank.