I still think the Cubs are going to add another starting pitcher before the offseason is over, but then, so does every team that is still looking for starting pitching, because almost none of them have signed!
Based on the most credible rumors out there, we’ve synthesized that the Cubs (like many other teams) are content to play a waiting game for now on a group of starting pitchers, each of whom they would happily sign if the man came at the Cubs’ preferred price tag: Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, and Jake Arrieta. It seems like the Cubs don’t want to go beyond four or maybe five years for Darvish or Arrieta, and don’t want to go beyond three years for Cobb.
Let’s imagine a world where the market starts behaving normally, and eager pursuers slide into the mix, signing each of those three starters to deals the Cubs are unwilling to match. Let’s further imagine that the Cubs aren’t big on Lance Lynn, and that any other starting pitcher they might sign from there comes from a tier that wouldn’t be guaranteed a starting spot (Jaime Garcia, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, etc.). And finally, let’s imagine that the Cubs also aren’t able to pull off a trade for a starting pitcher.
Just how eff’d are the Cubs in that event?
Although people would probably freak, I think the reality is more of a mixed bag. At the front of the rotation, the Cubs have Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks, a couple guys who are two of the best in baseball, and they have Jon Lester, who just turned 34, but whose 2017 season really wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
From there, the Cubs have already signed Tyler Chatwood to be in the rotation, and although he’s not a guy whose numbers immediately scream number four on a playoff-bound team, there’s so much upside to like about the 27-year-old now that he’s joining a team other than the Rockies. I like that he’s in the rotation, because I think he could wind up being a very good middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs if he’s healthy.
But then you’ve got the back of the rotation. At present, you’d nominally have a competition for the fifth starter job between Mike Montgomery, Eddie Butler, and Jen-Ho Tseng (plus any other depth starter the Cubs bring in from here on out), but, let’s be real, the best bet would be Montgomery, and not solely because he has made it very clear that he wants to be a starting pitcher again.
Making 14 starts for the Cubs in 2017, Montgomery posted a 4.15 ERA and 3.94 FIP over 69.1 innings. He had better results as a reliever, but better peripherals as a starter – and that 4.15 ERA is nothing to sneeze at in the current era, when the National League average ERA for a starter was 4.44 in 2017. Although he didn’t demonstrate an ability to consistently go deeply into games, Montgomery DID have success as a starting pitcher for the Cubs in 2017, in about half of a season’s worth of starts while flip-flopping in and out of the bullpen.
In other words, having Mike Montgomery as the Cubs’ fifth starter, with the other four guys already in-house ahead of him in the rotation, is really not a scary situation. It’s a fine situation. It could even wind up a good situation!
But you know that’s not the end of the story. Because slotting Montgomery into the rotation as the fifth starter leaves a gaping multi-inning hole in the bullpen, where Montgomery became a uniquely effective super-utility pitcher for the Cubs last year, sometimes going many innings, sometimes just going one inning, and sometimes just matching up a single batter. Montgomery to the rotation means the bullpen loses one of its most valuable arms.
Maybe you can get past that part. After all, the bullpen didn’t have Montgomery for half of last season, either, and the Cubs did make a couple additions out there in free agency. For comfort, though, you’d definitely want to see the Cubs adding another quality bullpen arm if the were going to use Montgomery as a full-time starting pitcher.
Here, instead, is where I get really concerned about having Montgomery in the rotation right now. Because he has shown that unique ability to bounce between the rotation and the bullpen, the Cubs have had the luxury of having their sixth starter available to them at all times, while also getting big league value out of his performance in the bullpen. Often, a sixth starter is using up bullets at AAA or is out of options and makes for very complicated roster decisions. Montgomery gave the Cubs the best of all worlds.
So, then, if you lose Montgomery in that role, you’re left with a mess of typical depth concerns. Butler, for one example, is out of minor league options. Could the Cubs get him through waivers to AAA if he doesn’t make the rotation or bullpen, and thus be kept as depth? Tseng has options, but is he really going to succeed at the big league level in the rotation? Is Alec Mills ready to be a depth starter? Is Adbert Alzolay? Did the Cubs find a diamond in Luke Farrell?
The best teams have their depth situation taken care of by good-to-great prospect arms who can be freely optioned back and forth to AAA as needed. The Cubs don’t yet have quite enough guys in that mold to have that luxury. So if a series of injuries pop up (or ineffectiveness, or injuries AND ineffectiveness), their rotation could very quickly become an anchor.
Adding a Darvish or an Arrieta or a Cobb not only improves the five-man starting rotation for the Cubs, it preserves the option to continue using Montgomery in an extremely valuable role (assuming he gets back on board with it). It’s conceivable the Cubs would be fortunate enough to find/develop a new Montgomery in the interim, but that’s far from a guarantee.
The safer bet is simply to sign a quality arm, and let Montgomery keep being the quality swing man he is. And *then* if a rotation spot opens up, it’s not a disaster – it’s just the opportunity for a really good pitcher to get some starts.