PORT CHARLOTTE — Drew Smyly's spring has been going so well that the Rays left-hander swore he actually welcomed Friday's somewhat rough outing.
"Honestly, it's probably good I had this game to kind of humble you," he said. "And let you know it's time to go to work and get ready for the season."
By how the Rays are setting up the order of their rotation — which could be announced as soon as today — it's clear they are counting heavily upon Smyly, who will pitch in the No. 2 slot behind All-Star ace Chris Archer, with Jake Odorizzi third and Matt Moore fourth. (Still being finalized is whether, with seven off days in the season's first 40, they keep Erasmo Ramirez as the fifth starter or shift him to help a bullpen short a man due to Brad Boxberger's injury.)
By how Smyly has pitched this spring, and when healthy during his previous 1½ seasons since being acquired for David Price, it's also clear the Rays expect even greater things.
"He's pitching like a front-end starter right now," manager Kevin Cash said. "Everyone talked about when they acquired Drew for David Price he was as good as any pitcher in baseball the last two months (of the 2014 season).
"Then last year when he was able to get on a roll, you saw glimpses of it, but he was never able to stay on the mound long enough for health reasons. We know we've got a very special starting pitcher on our hands."
Or, as Odorizzi said more succinctly:
"He's another No. 1 starter."
When Smyly came to the Rays — along with infielder Nick Franklin and promising shortstop prospect Willy Adames — he actually outpitched Price over the remainder of that 2014 season. Smyly was 3-1, 1.70 in seven starts for Tampa Bay, Price 4-4, 3.59 for Detroit.
Shoulder issues forced Smyly to open last season on the disabled list then, after three starts, into an extended absence and facing the possibility of serious surgery. He worked hard and worked his way back by mid August to make nine starts, going 5-0, 2.54 in the last eight.
Based on that strong finish, Smyly's dedicated strengthening work in the offseason, his willingness to make some suggested adjustments (such as using his changeup more) and his solid spring — though he allowed three homers in Friday's 6-1 loss to the Twins — the Rays have good reason to expect great things.
When Houston's Dallas Keuchel won last year's AL Cy Young Award, he gave a shout-out to his Arkansas college buddy, saying, "I'm trying to get him over here to Houston because he's going to be a finalist here in the next couple years."
Rays catcher Curt Casali said it might not take that long.
"I think he's capable of being as good as Keuchel last year, honestly," Casali said. "I think he's got that much deception, he's that competitive and he's that good a pitcher. I really do."
From his view behind the plate, Casali said he can see several reasons why Smyly, 26, is so effective:
A hitch in his over-the-top delivery that disrupts hitters' timing, a proclivity to throw strikes, some "very odd" spin on his pitches that results in a fastball with "natural cut," and a curveball that appears to break "the opposite way it's supposed to go," which almost sounds like a screwball. Add in a low-energy, unintimidating, even somewhat disinterested demeanor on the mound.
Then Casali got to see for himself during an early spring intrasquad game.
"He was absolutely baffling us," Casali said. "It doesn't look overpowering at all. But it's swing-and-miss, swing-and-miss, making guys look really dumb."
And if Smyly — who says he is a better pitcher now than at any previous point — can be at his best for a whole season, he could make the Rays look really smart.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.