Late on Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs kicked off their trade season by acquiring left-handed reliever Mike Montgomery (and another Triple-A starter) for first baseman/DH prospect Dan Vogelbach and RHP prospect Paul Blackburn.
Already, we’ve examined the unfolding of the deal, the implications for future trades, and the comments from coaches, members of the front office and analysts around the game.
Now, let’s briefly step away from the administrative side of things, and take a look at the pitcher himself. Or, in other words, let’s get to know the newest Cub, Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery, 27, was drafted in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft by the Kansas City Royals (36th overall). Considered a top prospect by most throughout his minor league career (as a starter), Montgomery was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays (alongside Jake Odorizzi and Wil Myers) in the James Shields/Wade Davis trade in 2012. Then, last March, Montgomery was traded once again to the Seattle Mariners, where he made his Major League Debut in 2015.
As a starter for the Mariners last season, Montgomery didn’t find a ton of success. Although he was good at inducing ground balls (51.2%), he just wasn’t striking enough batters out (16.2%) and was walking a bit more than you’d like to see (9.2%). Overall, he finished the season having made 16 starts, with a 4.60 ERA, 4.67 FIP, and a 4.44 xFIP. And, in case you were wondering, the mediocre performance was not likely the byproduct of any unlucky flukiness (.290 BABIP, 71.4% strand rate; although, his HR/FB ratio was a tad high at 13.3%).
So the Mariners changed gears, converting Montgomery into a reliever, and sent him to the bullpen right out of Spring Training. It is there where Montgomery has flourished.
Upon his move to the bullpen, Montgomery found immediate success. He was able to throw his fastball roughly 3 MPH faster than he had as a starter (maxing it out at just under 97 MPH, while routinely working around 93-94 MPH). In addition, he simplified his arsenal, working primarily with a fastball and a cutter, while eliminating several other, less productive pitches.
Across 50.1 innings in the Mariners’ 2016 pen, Montgomery has a 2.15 ERA, with peripherals roughly supporting it (2.91 FIP, 3.52 xFIP). His strikeout rate is still a touch low (21.8%), likely meaning that he isn’t a great candidate for an 8th or 9th inning role (just yet), but his walk rate went down (7.9%), and he continued to create a ton of ground balls. In fact, his 59.3% ground ball rate is 12th best in all of baseball.
But that’s not where the good stuff ends. As you know the Cubs were looking for a left-handed reliever to help out against those pesky left-handed hitters that have done some serious damage to the Cubs bullpen this season. Well, against Montgomery in 2016, lefties are hitting just .162/.269/.254 across 20.0 innings pitched. But even still, Montgomery is far from a LOOGY, as righties are hitting just .241/.306/.353 in 41.2 innings pitched this season.
Essentially, Montgomery is just a good reliever. Full stop. That said, Theo Epstein commented that he believes Montgomery is a pitcher on the rise – the type of guy who, down the road, you might only dream about getting, but whose price tag has been largely inflated. Well, if Montgomery does turn into a dominant reliever down the road, it’ll be a good thing for the Cubs, because they have him locked up for quite some time.
Even though he’s already 27 years old, Montgomery made his Major League debut just last year. That means that he’s making just $515K this season, is not arbitration eligible until the 2019 season, and won’t be a free agent until the 2022 season. Even as a mediocre, left-handed middle reliever, there’s plenty of value to be had. But there’s reason to suspect he can be even more than that. Maybe even a starter.
To be certain, it is very likely that Montgomery will remain in the bullpen for the entirety of the 2016 season, but beyond that, the rotation isn’t out of the question. In fact, his last two appearances in Seattle came out of the rotation and they were pretty great, all things considered (combined 11.1 IP, 4 ER, 12H, 2 BB, 10Ks).
If it helps, think of him as a left-handed Adam Warren – potentially solid reliever now, under cheap team control for the foreseeable future, small chance of cracking the rotation as soon as next Spring. If he ever does make his way into the rotation and finds success there, this could wind up being a huge trade for the Cubs. And it isn’t all a pipe dream, either. Remember Montgomery is a former first-round talent and top prospect in the minors. The tools have always been there, it just took him a bit longer to figure it all out, which is not uncommon for tall, lanky lefties.
In the meantime, Montgomery will try to help the Cubs with their bullpen issues, and hopefully work his way into a very meaningful role in one of the most promising Cubs seasons in recent memory.