The news Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Drew Smyly requires surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm leaves the Mariners with an intriguing dilemma.
Should the team retain Smyly?
Seattle has club control over Smyly through next season, but pitchers generally need 12-16 months to recover from the procedure commonly known as Tommy John surgery. That means the 28-year-old may never appear in a meaningful game for the team before he’s eligible for free agency.
The Mariners could offer Smyly salary arbitration, which would lead to the southpaw receiving at least the $6.85 million he’s earning this year. That’s a lot of money for a pitcher likely to remain idle for most, if not all, of 2018.
Another option would be to simply non-tender Smyly by not offering arbitration in the offseason, making the five-year veteran a free agent. There is recent precedent for taking such action.
When Greg Holland of the Kansas City Royals suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in September 2015, the Royals chose to non-tender their closer rather than offer arbitration. Much like Smyly, Holland’s club wasn’t optimistic he’d be available prior to free agency.
Rather than cutting ties with Smyly after the season, the Mariners could attempt to work out an extension with their injured starter, perhaps signing the former first round draft pick to a two-year deal.
During a recent appearance with Danny, Dave, and Moore on 710 ESPN Seattle, general manager Jerry Dipoto left that door open noting, “We still do control his rights for 2018 and we are open minded about what happens as we move ahead with Drew Smyly.”
There are two challenges with extending a player in Smyly’s situation. The first is the unpredictable nature of Tommy John recovery. Yes, recuperation time is generally 12-16 months. But, as a few recent cases demonstrate, every pitcher’s situation is unique.
Zack Wheeler of the New York Mets underwent ulnar collateral ligament repair in March 2015 and didn’t return to action until August 2016. Unfortunately, the right-hander lasted just 17 pitches in his first rehab start before being shut down for the remainder of the year with a mild flexor strain.
Two years after his surgery, Wheeler returned to major league action this past April. Although currently active, he recently missed 10 days with biceps tendinitis and has yet to return to pre-injury form. The 27-year-old’s road to full recovery continues to be long and winding.
Conversely, Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers suffered the same injury as Wheeler in the same month and underwent Tommy John with the same surgeon — Dr. James Andrews — and returned to big league action a year earlier in May 2016.
Still, Darvish did encounter difficulties.
After making just three starts, the right-hander missed five weeks due to shoulder and neck discomfort. Darvish returned to action after the all-star break making 17 starts in total for the Rangers last season. This year, he’s a top-10 starter in the American League.
Royals’ starter Jason Vargas underwent surgery in August 2015 and returned to make three abbreviated starts in September 2016. This season, the former Mariner is having a career year at age-34.
The experiences of Wheeler, Darvish, and Vargas are just a small sample size, but illustrate the varying degrees of success and frustration pitchers encounter when returning from Tommy John surgery.
The other challenge facing the Mariners and Smyly applies to any potential extension between a player or team. Both parties must find enough common ground to strike a deal. Compensation and length are always key considerations.
From Seattle’s perspective, they’re likely to seek a significant discount. They’d essentially be paying Smyly for this season and next, yet the University of Arkansas alum may not suit up in a Mariners uniform until 2019.
For Smyly, he could be potentially forfeiting future earnings by signing a club-friendly contract extending beyond next season. Whether he’d agree to such a deal would be a personal decision based on factors known only to Smyly and his agent. Certainly, financial security will come into play.
For those skeptical Smyly could land a favorable contract as a free agent coming off injury, look no further than Holland’s deal with the Colorado Rockies. Prior to this season, the 31-year-old inked a one-year/$7 million pact laden with performance milestones with 2018 consequences.
Holland’s original deal contained a mutual $10 million option for next season. However, he recently finished his thirtieth game, which automatically triggered the conversion of the mutual option into a $15 million player option.
Now, the Rockies’ closer is set to enter the offseason with increased negotiating leverage.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Holland will get to choose between staying with the Rockies under his original deal, negotiating a contract extension with the club, or selling his services to the highest bidder in free agency.
Does the Holland contract and the potential financial risks both Smyly and Seattle would assume with an extension mean he’ll never appear in a Mariners uniform during a regular season game?
Smyly was reportedly excited to join the club when Seattle acquired him in January. Moreover, Dipoto shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to creative deal making.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly withdrew a three-year guaranteed contract offer to starter Hisashi Iwakuma due to medical concerns, Dipoto swooped in to retain his right-hander with a three-year deal loaded with vesting options designed to protect the organization by rewarding Iwakuma for remaining healthy.
In the interview with Danny, Dave, and Moore mentioned earlier, Dipoto stated, “We’re hopeful for him and for the club, that somewhere down the road whether in 2018 or 2019, we’ll see Drew Smyly.”
Certainly, Seattle fans would appreciate seeing Smyly in action with their favorite club. Otherwise, his greatest moment as a Seattle Mariner will have occurred while wearing another team’s uniform.