This winter figures to be a busy one for the Chicago Cubs, who have two of five rotation spots (among many other items) to fill out before Spring Training rolls around.
And while the Cubs may have a nice foundation of starters in Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, and Jon Lester (hey, that’s a really solid front three), there are no obvious, lock-down, sure-fire, in-house answers behind them.
Well, except for one, right? What about Mike Montgomery?
The Cubs acquired Montgomery before the trade deadline back in 2016, and he’s made 21 starts for the team since then (7 in 2016, 14 in 2017). So far, however, his actual role on the Cubs has been something closer to reliever/swing man than true starter, even if the latter always felt like a possibility down the road.
In fact many of us (including myself) thought Monty might’ve snuck into the rotation for the 2017 season and, if not, I thought he’d at least have a completely clear shot in 2018, but maybe that’s not the case.
Here’s how Theo Epstein described the play for Montgomery (NBC):
“In a typical Mike Montgomery year, he’ll probably come to spring training as a starter, stretch out as a starter. Barring something unusual in Spring Training, like extreme performance or injuries somewhere, he’ll probably start the year in the bullpen and he’ll pitch well out of the bullpen, the way he did this year.
“And then at the end of the regular season, when you look up, he’ll have somewhere between 10 and 20 starts. And you’ll say: ‘Wow, Mike Montgomery was really valuable this year.’”
In other words, the plan for Montgomery is for him to look a whole lot in 2018 like he looked in 2016 and 2017. For a team facing two rotation vacancies, and given Montgomery’s upside as a starter, it’s a mild surprise.
According to Epstein, it’s not an indictment of Montgomery’s talent, it’s just a different use of it. And certainly, using Montgomery in this way has provided a great deal of value to the Cubs.
In 2017, Mike Montgomery’s first 36.2 IP came as a reliever. Then, when a spot opened up in the rotation (as one always does for every team in every season), he stepped in and started eight of his next nine games. He headed back to the bullpen for the end of July and most of August, but made another six starts before the season was up. And when the innings were tallied at the end of the year, Montgomery had made 14 starts and thrown 130.2 IP.
That’s a ton of usage for a swing man.
And maybe it’s the way the Cubs should head into the 2018 season anyway. After all, if you find capable starters to fill out your fourth and fifth spots in the rotation (perhaps one by trade and one by free agency?), Montgomery is probably one of the best 6th men in baseball. And unlike other 6th men who might solely be stashed at AAA, Montgomery can continue adding high-leverage value out of the bullpen until his number is called. Since he’s already shown the ability to step back and forth between both roles, maybe there’s not a good enough reason to mess with success.
Of course, as Epstein promises, that’s barring any unforeseen surprises in Spring Training, which, hey, you can’t rule out. You also can’t rule out the possibility that the Cubs aren’t quite able to get the two starting pitchers they seek this offseason, and perhaps will have to turn to Montgomery as a starter out of roster necessity. Not bad leverage to have in free agent negotiations with back-end starters, right?
So long as Montgomery comes into the season stretched out like a starter, if all goes according to plan, he’ll still likely wind up with another 130-150 IP. That’s a hugely valuable player, whatever his role is.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.