In a half-season with the Cubs back in 2016, Mike Montgomery made five starts and 12 appearances as a reliever down the stretch, before returning to the bullpen for the postseason (he got one pretty big out in November, if you remember).
In 2017, the Cubs leaned heavily on Montgomery’s swing-man skills, as he drew 14 starts throughout the course of the year, while making another 30 appearances out of the bullpen.
And after earning an impressive 3.38 ERA over those 130.2 IP in 2017, Montgomery went into the 2018 season hungry for a larger positional commitment from the Cubs. If you recall, he was rather (understandably) outspoken about his desire to be a starter and the potential benefits to his performance therein. He argued that knowing his role from Day 1 – and being able to prepare for it accordingly in the offseason – would play a disproportionately large role in his future success as a starter. The Cubs – also understandably – were not in a position to guarantee him any number of starts, after having just inked Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to meaty deals with promises to join Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana in the rotation.
The Cubs did, however, acknowledge Montgomery’s legitimate concern, and did their best to explain how there would be starts for Montgomery throughout the year and that they’d try to keep the swinging back-and-forth to a minimum (i.e. long stretches in the pen, long stretches in the rotation). As luck would have it, Montgomery was needed before long: both Yu Darvish (injury) and Tyler Chatwood (command) were out of the 2018 rotation in time.
So in 2018, Montgomery made five more starts than he did the year prior (19 starts) and wound up just short of his inning total from the year before (124.0 IP). His results weren’t quite as good (3.99 ERA, 3.94 FIP), but he proved himself a capable starter nonetheless.
And heading into 2019 … not much else has changed. In fact, things are just about where they were at this time last year. The Cubs rotation still has Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana, but now Yu Darvish is back with a new lease on life and Cole Hamels is in the fold, too – to say nothing of Tyler Chatwood’s quietly impressive Spring.
The Cubs will once again be unable to commit a guaranteed share of starts to Montgomery, even if we all more or less know he’ll probably end up with 15-20 starts by the end of the year.
But unlike last season, Montgomery isn’t asking for a commitment or pushing the Cubs for more. I think, at this point, he knows he’s capable of being productive in a swing role, and, like it or not, that’s the best way to help out his team. HOWEVA, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an important point to make
Montgomery may be comfortable with his ability to produce this year, no matter the role, but he is keeping it real about staying healthy: “You look at the history of baseball, and there aren’t a lot of guys who have been able to do the role I’m in and stay healthy,” Montgomery told the Tribune. “It’s alarming. For me, it’s a challenge. Can I be the anomaly and stay healthy? I think I can. I just have to be smarter and really work harder. But … it’s very hard to not have that set routine. I definitely have run across some of those challenges. But I just have to find a way to get it done and be healthy. It’s on me. We’ll see.”
Like last winter, those are some atypically candid words from the Cubs southpaw, but also not lies. Although there’s probably at least some chicken-and-egg’ing going on with some other guys who wind up swing pitchers, Montgomery is right that staying healthy in a swing-role isn’t easy (and he’s already dealt with some tightness this Spring) and he really might have to work harder than most to maintain his health. And considering that this is his livelihood, I really don’t have any problem with anything Montgomery’s said.
Hopefully, the Cubs can keep this in mind and try hard – like last season – to keep the actual swinging to a minimum. In other words, if there’s just a need for one singular start, that start should probably go to someone like Tyler Chatwood (depending, of course) or Alec Mills. And then, by contrast, if someone in the rotation is going to be out for an extended period of time, Montgomery can step in and take 4, 5, 6 starts in a row (or whatever). That’s not going to completely alleviate the problem, but it could help to mitigate the risks of injury *and* improve Montgomery’s performance.
At this point, Montgomery has done SO MUCH for this Cubs’ window of contention, I’m inclined for the Cubs to do right by him as much as possible. They can’t just break and give him something that’s not in the best interest of the team, but they can bend a bit, and also can reward him well through his arbitration years.