A second-round pick in 2010 after two years at the University of Arkansas, Tigers left-handed prospect Drew Smyly
signed at the deadline and did not make his professional debut until this past spring. The 22-year-old began the 2011 campaign with Lakeland in the Class A Advanced Florida State League and put up strong numbers, despite spending a month on the disabled list with a sore elbow. After going 7-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 14 starts for the Flying Tigers, Smyly joined Double-A Erie at the end of July and was even more impressive. Smyly posted a 1.18 ERA with 53 strikeouts over 45 2/3 innings while holding Eastern League hitters to a .201 average.
The dominant performance made Smyly the Tigers' Organizational Pitcher of the Year and has him ranked as MLB.com's No. 82 prospect overall and the No. 10 left-hander.
Though Smyly has just 126 innings of pro experience -- and none above Double-A -- a strong Grapefruit League performance could make him a candidate for Detroit's rotation. MiLB.com spoke to him recently at his home in Dallas.
MiLB.com: What have you been up to this offseason?
Drew Smyly: Just working out and trying to get ready for the 2012 season really. I've been living in Dallas this winter and am heading down to Florida next week. It's a little early for Spring Training, but I want to get into my routine.
MiLB.com: You had a tremendous debut season and were named the Tigers' Organizational Pitcher of the Year. Were you expecting it to go so well? Was there anything that surprised you?
Smyly: I wouldn't say a surprise -- you want to do well whenever you pitch, just do your best and help the team out. I got into a groove at the end there, so things worked out well.
MiLB.com: You spent some time on the DL early in the season. How did your arm feel after 126 innings this past year? Is it true that you have two screws in your elbow remaining from your elbow surgery?
Smyly: Yeah, I still have the screws -- they're there forever. It was definitely an adjustment this season. I'd never thrown that regularly, every five days with a bullpen [session] in between. At first I was a little like, "It's my turn to pitch again already?" and I had some elbow tendinitis. But as I settled in and got used to things, I was ready to go.
MiLB.com: How close were you to returning to Arkansas for your junior season? I guess the Tigers made you an offer you couldn't refuse.
Smyly: It was really close. I pretty much left it to my agent and [signing] came down to the wire. I knew Arkansas would have a great team that year with or without me and it could have gone either way -- I just wanted to pitch. In the end, I think things have worked out for the best.
MiLB.com: I understand that you developed a cut fastball relatively recently, due to a blister. How were you able to pick up a pitch like that in the middle of the season?
Smyly: Yeah, during my last season at Arkansas. I had a really bad blister -- the doctor said it had gone so deep that I'd torn fibers -- and couldn't grip the ball the way I normally did. I was just trying to find a grip that would cut down the pain and let me keep pitching, so I did some experimenting holding the ball on the side and the cut fastball kind of came out of that. When the blister finally healed, I was still able to use the different grip.
MiLB.com: In your last year at Arkansas, you allowed 11 homers in 18 games. This past season in the pros, you only yielded two in 22 games. What was the difference?
Smyly: I'd like to take credit for that -- I've always been good at throwing strikes, but you want to throw quality strikes and maybe I was a little better about keeping the ball down -- but honestly, I think it just may have been the wooden bats this year [laughs].
MiLB.com: There were rumors this offseason that when Oakland was shopping Gio Gonzalez, they were asking for you, among others, from the Tigers. How does that sort of attention make you feel?
Smyly: I try not to worry about that stuff. The Tigers know what they're doing and are trying to put together the best team they can. I just have to concentrate on pitching well.
MiLB.com: People have been saying that you have a shot at the Tigers' rotation this spring. What's the biggest thing you think you need to do to be successful?
Smyly: I think just to stay focused and stay with an attack mentality. There'll be a lot of good pitchers there -- it should be a fun competition. I just need to stay on my form and be ready for whatever happens.
MiLB.com: Growing up in Arkansas, you didn't really have a hometown team to root for. What were your favorite teams and players when you were younger?
Smyly: My favorite team was the Braves, but I've always liked Cliff Lee. Apart from being a great pitcher, he's from my hometown. It was great when he won the Cy Young Award.
MiLB.com: Final question: what's your pick for the Super Bowl?
Smyly: I have to go with the Patriots. [Backup QB Ryan] Mallet is a good friend of mine from Arkansas, and it would be pretty cool to see him get a Super Bowl ring.