When Ken Rosenthal tweeted last month that Mike Montgomery wanted to start or be traded, the Cubs’ front office was understandably taken aback. At no point, it seems, did Mike ever discuss agitation with his role with any of Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, or Jed Hoyer, so they were understandably caught off guard by the sudden declaration.
Clearly, Montgomery went about this the wrong way. On a team that prides itself on being close knit, keeping personal (and personnel) issues mostly in-house, and with the front office expressing Monty being well-liked, team oriented, and selfless, his displeasure leaking to the media felt a bit sour. On the other hand, he wasn’t taking a stab at a teammate or otherwise expressing anger toward the team; rather, he was expressing a belief in himself and what he thought was best for his career and for the team.
With that in mind, I’d like to reexamine the case for Monty in the rotation. With the fifth spot in the rotation clearly up in the air and a free agent market that remains slow to develop and replete with inflated asking prices, looking in house to solve the problem might very well be worth more than a passing glance.
The Statistical Argument
Let’s take a quick look at Montgomery’s splits as a Starter/Reliever from 2017 –
|Season||SP / RP||IP||ERA||TBF||H||2B||3B||R||ER||HR||BB||IBB||HBP||SO||AVG||OBP||SLG||wOBA|
While these splits appear to be fairly pronounced, and support the notion that Monty is best served as a reliever, keep in mind that his versatility comes at a cost. In other words, it’s more than reasonable to surmise that should he be given a set role as a starter his numbers would normalize somewhere in between the splits above. And if that were to occur, who could complain? After all, a 4.15 ERA from a number five starter is far from intolerable, especially when one considers that the average ERA for starters across Major League Baseball in 2017 was 4.49. Let’s also keep in mind that with Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, an aging-but-still-effective Jon Lester, and Tyler Chatwood away from Coors Field, the Cubs don’t need a top end rotation guy. They need a capable, consistent, innings-eating number five, and Montgomery has proven more than qualified for such a role.
Now let’s look at his splits from the advanced metric angle –
|Season||SP / RP||K/9||BB/9||K/BB||HR/9||K%||BB%||K-BB%||AVG||WHIP||BABIP||LOB%||FIP||xFIP|
|2017||As Starter||7.27||2.73||2.67||0.91||19.6 %||7.3 %||12.2 %||.222||1.14||.258||68.3 %||3.94||4.01|
|2017||As Reliever||6.46||4.99||1.29||0.44||17.3 %||13.4 %||3.9 %||.208||1.29||.249||81.2 %||4.22||4.74|
As a starter, Monty had an increased K/9, a much better BB%, and also produced a higher ground ball percentage with a decreased line drive percentage. Granted, much like the chart above, this is a relatively small sample size, perusing only the 2017 season. (And his 2016 splits admittedly fail to express consistency.) Nevertheless, these are encouraging numbers, and they paint the picture that Montgomery could very well slot in to the rotation effectively.
The Justin Wilson Factor
A bit of a forgotten man, Justin Wilson was presumably a huge get for the Cubs prior to last year’s trade deadline. At the time the Tigers’ closer, Wilson was thought to be a huge bullpen upgrade, offering a high leverage late-inning lefty for Joe Maddon to utilize. Instead, Wilson was abysmal, producing a 5.09 ERA and surrendering 19 walks in just 17 1/3 innings. So little was Maddon’s confidence in him that he was left off the NLCS roster after a brief appearance in the NLDS. In other words, Wilson was an absolute train wreck for the Cubs in 2017.
There’s optimism concerning Wilson, however. He has a proven track record (career 4.5 WAR) to go along with stellar numbers with the Tigers in 2017. Some have suggested placing little hope in Wilson in 2018, but I think it’s better to expect him to return to his successful form. Slotting Montgomery into the rotation would also be a nod to Wilson that there remains confidence in him, and with new pitching coach Jim Hickey, there is certainly reason to believe he can return to form. Couple that with Jed Hoyer’s admission that the Cubs share some of the blame in Wilson’s struggles, and cautious optimism becomes less of a pipe dream and more of a realistic notion.
Granted, even if Wilson returns to dominant form, he won’t replace the invaluable swing-man/utility relief role that Montgomery has provided the Cubs. What he will do, however, is provide the Cubs with a valuable high leverage lefty arm. A reunion with Brian Duensing, the continued development of Rob Zastryzny, and/or the emergence of newcomer Dario Alvarez would give the Cubs solid lefty options out of the ‘pen. Perhaps this is the best-case scenario; it’s also quite plausible.
The Money Angle
The Cubs are about to shell out a healthy amount of money via arbitration: Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Hendricks will all see big raises, with the former perhaps nearing the biggest contract in one’s first year of arbitration in the game’s history. You also have to consider that the three starters the Cubs have been linked to most often (Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, and Alex Cobb) have asking prices that remain uncomfortable in terms of AAV and length of contract. And if the Cubs want to have money saved up to pursue some of the talent in 2018-2019’s historic free agent class, Montgomery makes a lot more sense than a lucrative contract to a free agent.
There’s also the reality that the Cubs have several more young players that will soon receive raises via arbitration, along with Montgomery himself still under team control (not hitting arbitration until 2019, and not a free agent until 2022). From a fiscal standpoint, then, it almost makes too much sense to give Montgomery a shot at starting. It’ll help keep the Cubs a decent distance away from the luxury threshold, which will certainly come in handy.
The Depth behind Monty
While the Cubs have far from polished options providing starting pitching depth, the group isn’t altogether laughable. Alec Mills, Eddie Butler, and Jen-Ho Tseng are all potential fill-ins (Adbert Alzolay is likely a year away, yet). And then there’s rehabbing Drew Smyly, perhaps being ready for a relief role late in the season (another lefty option!) with an eye on the 2019 rotation. I admit this is far from an inspirational group, but it’s also not terrible. And yes, Montgomery himself is better suited as rotation depth while maintaining his swing-man role than what’s mentioned above. But this isn’t a perfect world, and I remain convinced that Monty should at least be given thorough consideration to start.
There’s also another method with which to create depth and/or address the fifth rotation spot should Montgomery struggle or more depth is needed: the trade deadline. I get that it is much more palatable to use money to sign a starter via free agency now than piecemeal whatever you can from a stripped down farm system to acquire another starter in July. It remains an insurance option, however, and could be handy if Montgomery does indeed struggle in a starting capacity.
In all likelihood, I imagine the Cubs inevitably sign a free agent to round out the starting rotation. And while Maddon claims this won’t affect Montgomery’s morale (and he’s probably right if Monty is the team player he’s described as being) it also could precipitate a strained relationship depending on how the season unfolds.
Still, nothing has been set in stone as of today, and should the Cubs refuse to shell out the money desired by Cobb, Arrieta, or Darvish, turning to Montgomery may just be the right answer. The bullpen additions this off-season (Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek) have certainly mitigated the loss of Wade Davis, and a return to form for Justin Wilson along with a consistent Carl Edwards Jr. could provide the Cubs with a surprisingly elite bullpen.
Keep in mind I’m not exclaiming beyond doubt that Montgomery should be the fifth starter. I am, however, advocating that the Cubs give the notion more credibility than they’ve publicly indicated. Montgomery has more upside in my mind than most people give credit. I’d love to see what he can do with a full year as a starter.