On August 17, Jon Lester threw 1.2 innings against the Cincinnati Reds, surrendered seven earned runs, and left the game with the trainer before the 2nd inning was over.
Fortunately, the Cubs were not lost, because they had swing-starter Mike Montgomery available out of the bullpen. He came in to toss 4.1 innings of 3-hit, shutout baseball against the Reds. Now, with Lester on the 10-day disabled list, Montgomery will step into the rotation once again – like he has so many times over the past year and a half – and try to make the short-term loss of Lester as painless as possible.
Montgomery makes his first fill-in start during this stretch tonight in Cincinnati.
But, as we always wonder when Montgomery steps into the rotation, perhaps this will be much more than just another couple of spot starts for Montgomery. Maybe, like Vinnie Duber writes at CSN Chicago, it’ll be something of a “mini-audition” for the 2018 rotation, when the Cubs could have a couple openings after the expected departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.
Montgomery has already made some starts this season, although the results have been lacking. Still, let’s take a closer look at the guy stepping into the Cubs’ rotation.
Overall this season, Montgomery has earned a 3.64 ERA (4.23 FIP) over 35 appearances (96.1 IP), but not all of those appearances were out of the pen. Indeed, Montgomery has made eight starts this year, and hasn’t gotten great results (5.13 ERA), but maybe that doesn’t tell the whole story.
A closer look at Montgomery’s numbers reveals a solidly above average 4.25 FIP (4.50 is the league average FIP for starters this season, in case you didn’t realize just how far that number had fallen), and a few other encouraging peripherals. For one, Montgomery is walking a significantly smaller percentage of batters as a starter this season (8.6%) than he has in the past, and he’s also getting a better-than-league-average batting average against, strikeout rate, and WHIP. On top of all that, Montgomery’s managed to best these league averages despite an elevated BABIP and depressed strand rate.
To put it simply: the results just haven’t matched his actual performance and he’s getting unlucky. That’s some hard luck for Montgomery as a starter, but some good news for him and the Cubs going forward.
To be sure, I’m not really expecting the Cubs to move into a six-man rotation (once Lester returns) over the final month or so of the season, but he’ll get at least a couple opportunities here at the end of August, and then 2018 remains firmly on the table.
And in any case, Montgomery seems to enjoy getting a chance to start.
“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace,” Montgomery said via CSN Chicago. “But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win.”
Joe Maddon added that Montgomery is always up to jump into the rotation and that he is just now learning how to use every tool in his very expansive toolbox. If he can really get better, as Maddon assertively suggests, the Cubs may have found themselves an excellent starting option for next season and beyond.
And hey, it doesn’t hurt that Montgomery, who’s only 28 years old, isn’t even arbitration eligible until after the 2018 season (free agent after 2021). That’s a whole lot of cheap, young, talented team control … of a starting pitcher … who’s left-handed. Given that Montgomery is plenty open to starting long-term, I’d say the Cubs are well setup to take advantage of this asset.
For now, Montgomery will fill in for Lester over the next week or two, and likely head back into the bullpen for the remainder of the season. But make sure you pay close attention to these starts, because soon enough that could be his full-time job.