One of the reasons why the Tigers were able to trade Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals is because of Drew Smyly. After a solid rookie campaign in which Smyly allowed a 3.99 ERA and 3.83 FIP in 99 1/3 innings, he spent all of 2013 in the bullpen. The starting rotation of Fister, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello put up a record-setting 25.2 WAR. With all five players under club control for the 2014 season, it seemed like the group would get another chance to dominate the rest of the American League. Smyly would be relegated to the bullpen again, where he was one of the best lefties in the league.
We know what happened next. Fister was traded, and suddenly Smyly had a spot in the rotation. How would he respond? Pretty well, actually. Smyly's numbers with the Tigers pale in comparison to the excellent seven start sample he provided in Tampa, but he was still worth 1.2 WAR with the Tigers during the first four months of the season.
Smyly got off to a late start during the 2014 season thanks to a light April schedule. He made a couple of relief appearances during the first couple weeks of the season, but did not make his first start until April 18th against the Los Angeles Angels. He got hit hard by a righty-heavy Angels lineup, allowing four runs on six hits in three innings. He got better after that, holding opponents to a 2.76 ERA and .684 OPS in his next five starts.
Another long layoff may have hurt Smyly in his next start. He made a one inning relief appearance against the Texas Rangers on May 22nd, just three days after a start against the Cleveland Indians. Four days after he pitched against Texas, Smyly suffered his worst start of the season against a then-red-hot Oakland Athletics team. The A's knocked Smyly around to the tune of six runs on eight hits in five innings. The outing rose his ERA by nearly a full run, and another poor start his next time out brought his ERA up to a season-high 4.10.
Smyly went on a solid run after that, allowing a 3.79 ERA in June and July. This was sparked by a four start stretch at the beginning of June where he only allowed four earned runs. He suffered a couple of hard-luck losses during this stretch, a big reason why his 6-9 record wasn't representative of how well he pitched. Three of his nine losses came in starts where Smyly allowed two runs or fewer.
Mixed in with the occasional blow-up outings were a fair number of stellar outings. He stymied the Kansas City Royals on a couple of occasions, including seven shutout innings in a 9-2 Tigers victory on May 3rd. Smyly nearly repeated that feat against the Cleveland Indians on July 20th, allowing one run in seven strong innings. His best start of the season may have come five days later, in a Tigers loss no less. Smyly only lasted 5 2/3 innings and gave up two runs, but he struck out 11 Angels hitters, a career-high.
Unfortunately, Smyly's time with the Tigers ended prematurely. He was part of the last-minute trade deadline deal that brought David Price to Detroit. While Price struggled at times with the Tigers, Smyly was excellent with the Rays. In seven starts, he allowed a 1.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. This was almost entirely fueled by a .184 BABIP, but an improvement in his strikeout-to-walk ratio is an encouraging sign for Rays fans.
Not many pitchers are successfully able to transition from the bullpen to the rotation. Smyly was able to accomplish this feat with surprising success in 2014, proving that he belongs as a starter in the big leagues. He didn't get to enjoy a BABIP-fueled run in Detroit like he did in Tampa, but his numbers with the Tigers are more than adequate for a back-end starter. He should be able to repeat those numbers going forward with the Rays, though it wouldn't be surprising to see him improve with a better defense behind him in 2015.