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Frostbitten optimism? Promise of sunshine and (Drew) Smyly days ahead for Cubs

As the snow came down again, and another day of Cubs baseball got blown away in a gust of 20-degree wind chills Monday, the promise of sunshine and warm days seemed as broken as the promise of a fast start for the Cubs this month.

But 1,750 miles away in the 80-plus-degree warmth of Arizona, the promise of real baseball impact for the Cubs persists – a promise of Smyly days, if not actual sunshine, ahead.

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Smyly? What? Who?

Smyly, pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016.

Drew Smyly might be the forgotten man on the Cubs’ roster as he toils in Mesa, Arizona, this week, but he remains loud and clear on the Cubs’ radar, about to start throwing from the mound in what has been a smooth rehabilitation process from Tommy John surgery.

“That’s the big next step,” said Smyly, who spent the first week of the homestand with teammates before returning to Mesa to continue his throwing program. “It’s been smooth sailing. No setbacks. Now it’s just building up endurance, stamina, strength.”

Fans in Chicago might have a tough time seeing through their frostbitten optimism at a 7-7 team whose touted starting rotation is 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA 14 starts into the year — a team that scored nine runs in the last inning it batted, and seven in its previous 26 combined.

But Smyly has a vision as upbeat as his name.

“The goal is to be ready to help this team in August,” said the left-hander, who sees himself as a late-season, quality acquisition in waiting – maybe even a forgotten, if not secret, weapon when the heat is on.

“That’d be a pretty awesome way to end the year,” he said, “to get back healthy and provide a little boost to the team down the stretch going into hopefully October.”

That was a small part of the plan when the Cubs signed Smyly to a two-year, $10 million deal in December. The big part was the chance to have another healthy, quality left-handed starter for the 2019 rotation in his first full season back from the surgery.

“Anything we get out of him [in 2018] will be sort of gravy,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at the time of the signing.

But Smyly, 28, has his sights set on this summer. And nine months after his surgery, his body seems to be cooperating.

“Everything’s been great,” he said. “The arm feels great. I just have to keep it going.”

He just concluded a short rest period after eight months of rehab work. And once he starts throwing from a mound this week, it’s about a slow buildup, barring setback, toward a minor-league rehab assignment, possibly in July.

That’s why he keeps talking about an August return to a major-league mound.

“I view September as, like, worst case right now” he said. “I know things can happen along the way, but in my mind, I’m full-fledged ready to – I see myself pitching this season.

“I don’t want this season to go to waste.”

Assuming he stays on the course he’s talking about, that could mean the most important time of the season.

And this: The last time he was a regular reliever, he went 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA for a 2013 Detroit Tigers team that played in the American League Championship Series.

Lefties hit just .202 against him in his career (.578 OPS).

“I’m going to view it as being a fresh arm for the and trying to help any way possible,” said Smyly, who pitched for manager Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay in 2014 and who had pitching coach Jim Hickey there for 2½ seasons.

“I told the team – and we’re all on the same page – I want to help the team win this year,” he said. “Obviously, next year is the long-term goal. But I think we all see myself contributing down the stretch.”