Chicago Cubs: Could Drew Smyly take Brian Duensing’s role down the stretch?

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) /

Brian Duensing has not fared too well as of late. Could Drew Smyly take over his role in the bullpen when the latter joins the Chicago Cubs later this season?

It has been an up-and-down 2018 season for Chicago Cubs reliever Brian Duensing.

Duensing, 35, re-signed with the Cubs in the offseason after a stellar 2017 debut on the North Side. The left-hander posted a 2.74 ERA in 68 games (62 1/3 innings) with opponents hitting a career-low .246 against him.

Struggling in 2018

Unfortunately, Duensing’s performance has trended in the opposite direction in 2018. In 41 games (31 1/3 innings), he has a 7.18 ERA and a 1.79 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .261 against him, a large jump from 2017.

Speaking of large jumps, Duensing has walked 25 batters this season (he walked 18 in 2017). He has allowed 26 runs (25 earned) in 2018 after allowing 19 in 2017 (all earned). He has surrendered five home runs (six in 2017).

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I hate to sound like I am bashing Duensing, because he has been valuable to the Cubs. Really, his numbers ballooned because of a rough June and July in which he allowed a combined 22 runs (21 earned) in 13 2/3 innings.

Duensing’s ERA was as low as 1.93 as of June 3. It is far from that now, and one has to wonder if his time with the Cubs is ticking away. This is especially curious considering that Drew Smyly could join the Cubs within the next few weeks.

Smyly on the way

The Cubs signed Smyly to a two-year contract in the offseason. He underwent Tommy John Surgery in July 2017 following an injury that March. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer pointed out how the move was made largely with 2019 in mind as a result.

"“Anything we get out of him next year will be sort of gravy,” Hoyer said. “He may be able to help us late in the season out of the bullpen. This is a move that’s focused on 2019. He’s a really good, high-quality starting pitcher, and we’re excited to get him on this deal and rehab him and hopefully get him back to where he was.”"

Smyly has experience as both a starter and reliever, though he has started all but three games since 2014. The Cubs certainly would not throw him into the starting rotation this season, as he has not pitched in an MLB game since Sept. 2016.

As Hoyer said in the offseason, though, Smyly could help the Cubs’ bullpen late in the season. Considering Duensing’s struggles, what are the odds Smyly slides into Duensing’s role once he returns to the mound?

What could happen?

There would be a lot of moving pieces for this to happen, and such a move would depend on when Smyly returns. The Cubs are in no hurry to throw him into big league action, and rightfully so.

If Smyly is able to return this month, Duensing would likely be the odd man out of the team’s bullpen. None of the Cubs’ current relievers have minor league options, so a tough decision will have to be made regardless.

Not only does Duensing have the highest ERA of the bunch, but he and Smyly are both left-handed. The move would make sense, but it may not be necessary if Smyly is not ready to return until September.

MLB rosters expand from 25 active players to 40 in September. The Cubs could wait to activate Smyly until then (assuming he is ready). Doing so would mean they would not have to cut Duensing loose.

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Ultimately, there are a lot of hypotheticals in play here. The bottomline, though, is that Smyly is likely coming and Duensing is struggling. If Duensing does not improve, it feels like he could be replaced sooner rather than later.