The Chicago Cubs have used a total of nine starters throughout the 2016 season, with each of Adam Warren, Brian Matusz, Trevor Cahill and Mike Montgomery grabbing at least one start in addition to the original (fab?) five.
The last in that group, Montgomery, however, has made two starts in a row in place of the injured John Lackey, and may yet find his name in the starting slot a few more times before the regular season is over.
Lackey, who’s been on the disabled list with a shoulder strain since August 15, is scheduled to throw a bullpen session today after doing so this weekend, but will need at least one more before the Cubs will re-insert him into the rotation (Cubs.com). That means there will be at least one more start for Mike Montgomery (this Wednesday against the Pirates (Hey! I’ll be there)), but from there, manager Joe Maddon concedes it’s possible the Cubs could go with six starters for some of September.
It’s a luxury very few teams even have the possibility of considering.
“It’s being proven throughout the industry right now,” Maddon said, per CSN. “Moving forward, the biggest trick there is to get the sixth guy that you like. Most teams are clamoring to get (No.) 4 and 5. We got five that we like. Now we’re working on 6.”
Given Montgomery’s relative success as a spot/swing starter this season (both for the Cubs and the Mariners) and the fact that he’s already stretched out, he’s certainly the most likely candidate for a spot in the rotation, but it’s far from a sure thing. In fact, I doubt a strict six-man rotation is even the end goal.
In all likelihood, Montgomery – or someone(s) else – will get a start or three in September in order to provide some intermittent days of rest for the front five. Whether you consider that a true “six-man rotation,” or something else altogether is bit of of semantics. With an enormous lead in the NL Central, the Cubs were probably always planning on finding a way to rest their starters down the stretch and into the playoffs (Lackey injury or not). Montgomery grabbing a few starts ahead of time because of the injury may have just been a coincidence.
The integration of a sixth man (whomever that may be), though, could prove quite beneficial to the Cubs.
On the surface, of course, Montgomery’s production has been quite good (and if you recall, becoming a full-time starter remains a possibility for the future). In two starts with the Cubs this season, Montgomery has allowed just four earned runs (3.86 ERA) on seven hits and six walks against ten strikeouts in 9.1 innings pitched. While that may be far from ideal production, it’s completely serviceable, especially after quickly stepping out of the bullpen. If you include the two starts he made with Seattle as well, his numbers get better: 3.48 ERA through 20.2 IP, with a 22.5% K-rate and a 9.0% walk rate. If Montgomery could pitch like that consistently down the stretch, the Cubs would be thrilled to have him as a sixth starter.
But the benefits of such an arrangement extend well beyond the starter’s production.
Structured properly, the Cubs will be able to keep their main starters on rhythm and sharp, while also lessening the load down the stretch. Given what we saw from Jake Arrieta near the end of the playoffs last season, that could prove invaluable come playoff time. And therein lies the benefit of mounting an enormous lead in your division.
While there are no medals given out for most wins during the regular season, you do “win” the ability to rest your starters (position players, too) in September (the Cardinals did this last season, just before things got a little more interesting near the end). We like to think that each player on the team is a machine, capable of keeping up whatever pace is asked until November, but we know that’s not true. Players get tired, injured, and worn down, especially at this time of the year. Some extra rest in the form of one more day in between starts can have a positive cascading effect on the rest of the rotation and their individual seasons (and, in turn, the bullpen). The only reason teams don’t do it more often, is – like Joe Maddon implied – because they can’t risk the losses from poor production from a sixth man.
The Cubs, however, have a 14.0 game lead in the NL Central. They can afford it, and – in all likelihood – they’ll be taking advantage of it.