As the case tends to be for every team during every single winter, the Chicago Cubs will need some starting pitching depth before they begin the 2017 season.
Although some cliches are often exaggerated or overused, you really can never have too much pitching.
In fact, Cubs fans may have become especially deaf to this cry after having some of the most unexpectedly 1) healthy and 2) productive staffs over the past few seasons. And while many of the players are the same and the front office bringing in those players is the same, the Cubs luck might not be the same next time around. Certainly not forever.
Of course, that goes triple (yes, triple!) for a Chicago Cubs team that is scheduled to lose 3/5 of it’s 2016 rotation by the end of 2017 (Jason Hammel has already left, and both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are free agents at the end of the year). So where are they going to find starters?
Although the Cubs can always turn to free agency, and trades are sometimes available, the Cubs may first look inwards to fill a spot with someone already in the organization like … Mike Montgomery.
Before the beginning of the 2016 season, the Chicago Cubs already began planning for their 2017 rotation and beyond, by trading Starlin Castro for a right-handed Yankees part-time reliever, part-time starter named Adam Warren. The best-case plan for Warren, when he came to the Cubs, was to pitch out of the bullpen in 2016 (perhaps with a stray start or two sprinkled in), before stepping into the rotation permanently in 2017. Of course, despite excellent projections across the board, things didn’t really work out for the Cubs and Warren, so he was sent back to New York as part of the package that netted Aroldis Chapman.
Five days before the Cubs shipped out Warren, however, they picked up his spiritual replacement in Mike Montgomery. Like Warren, Montgomery was a reliever (albeit left-handed) who had spent time starting in the past, but had found some significant success out of the bullpen. Also like Warren, the plan for Montgomery was to help out the Cubs in relief this season, before potentially stepping into the rotation full time next year.
Well, after recording the final out of the Cubs first World Series victory in over 100 years (and pitching very well for the entire postseason), the first part of the plan has been completed to perfection. All that’s left, now, is for Montgomery to step into the rotation and become a successful starting pitcher for the remaining five years of club control. Easy, right? Well, of course not, but that does appear to be the plan.
According to Manager Joe Maddon (via CBS Chicago), Mike Montgomery is first in line to replace the exiting Jason Hammel at the back of the Cubs’ five-man rotation – a rotation that already features two of tonight’s 2016 Cy Young award finalists, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, the 2015 Cy Young Award Winner, Jake Arrieta, and the 3-time World Series Champion, John Lackey).
“[Montgomery’s] got a solid foot in the door for that,” Maddon said in an interview with Matt Spiegel and Jon Greenberg on 670 The Score. Maddon went on to give Montgomery a lot more credit than that, calling him a legitimate Major League starter who’s in line to win a lot of games. The task for Maddon and the Cubs, according to Maddon himself, is getting Montgomery in a position to best utilize his stuff. (Like, perhaps, for one recently-discussed example, his improving curveball?)
To be certain, Montgomery has had plenty of success as a starter in limited/uneven deployment. Well, in 2016, at least:
Mike Montgomery as a Starter:
2015: 90 IP; 4.60 ERA
2016: 35.2 IP; 3.28 ERA
Although, to be fair, his .324 wOBA against as a starter this year isn’t too inspiring, and neither was his 4.86 FIP. That said, there is clearly some reason for optimism, especially considering the fact that Montgomery hasn’t yet gotten a full opportunity to stretch out as a starter with the Cubs. It’s not wholly impossible that, like Maddon intimated, they have a different strategy for him to employ.
Still, I have some reservations.
Before I get to deep into my opinion here, I want to point out that Montgomery is a great pitcher and could very likely develop into a useful starter. The thing is, I don’t want to spoil what is already a very good thing.
Mike Montgomery as a Reliever:
2016: 64.1 IP; 2.10 ERA
As a reliever in 2016, Mike Montgomery was about as good as they get. His 64.1 innings out of the pen between the Mariners and the Cubs resulted in a 2.10 ERA and an impressive 3.19 FIP. Further, as a reliever, Montgomery was able to suppress the opposing offense to a much greater degree (.269 wOBA) than he was as a starter (.324 wOBA).
I don’t plan on getting into the specific reasons why that was the case just yet (we’ll do that another time as this story progresses toward Spring Training and other roster moves are or are not made), but you can assume he – like every converted starter – was able to eliminate or reduce his less effective pitches, and also throw a bit harder when he’s used in shorter doses (note, his strikeout rate has been 21.7% as a reliever, but a very low 16.2% as a starter).
So, my opinion (for what it’s worth and all that) is that it might be best to let Montgomery continue carving out that wonderfully useful multi-inning role in the bullpen, where, unlike your typical reliever, you can still count on him to pitch well into the 80, 90, even 100 innings range by the end of the season. The Cubs, then, would have a swing-starter (if and when necessary), a lefty who’s especially tough on other lefties, and a (increasingly popular) multi-inning reliever who can handle high-leverage situations all rolled into one.
I know there aren’t a ton of other options available (the free agent market is light, the trade market is expensive, and the Cubs organizational cupboard is barren of impact starting pitching at the upper levels), but I’d rather allow Montgomery to succeed in the role he’s proven effective than force him to become something he maybe is not.
[Brett: I agree with Michael to the extent that the Cubs should not head into 2017 *assuming* that Montgomery is definitely going to be in the rotation all season. They have to have some additional quality depth, just in case starting is not going to work for Montgomery. Where I differ a bit with Michael, though, is that I do think, given his tweaks when arriving with the Cubs, his wide ranging arsenal, and the obviously good stuff, it’s worth giving him a very long look as a starter before putting him back in the bullpen. The value of a true multi-role, 80+ inning super utility pitcher is increasing as those guys are used more wisely, but that’s still not quite at the level of an effective starting pitcher. If Montgomery can become that for the Cubs in 2017, that would go a long way to helping the team with a critical need in 2018 and beyond.]