Back-to-back strikeouts and a flyout to end the frame.
Now-Cubs’ starter Mike Montgomery escaped a bases loaded, no-out jam in the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night, but that wasn’t his only magic trick. The southpaw notched his fourth-straight outing with six-innings of one-run ball, making a strong case to stick around in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
Since he began to pitch every fifth day on May 28, Montgomery has amassed a 1.21 ERA and a 3.50 FIP (fielding independent pitching), which measures a pitcher’s run prevention sans his defense’s performance. Although his strikeout rate (16.7 percent) ranks sixth among Cubs’ starters this season — behind Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood and Kyle Hendricks — his walk rate (6.1 percent) sits first.
With Darvish’s return scheduled for around the All-Star break, Montgomery’s newfound role won’t change anytime soon. Once Darvish rejoins the Cubs’ active roster, though, they’ll need to decide between shipping Montgomery back to the bullpen, optioning Chatwood for a minor-league stint or molding their rotation into a six-man weave.
“I don’t think it’s (a six-man rotation) necessarily a solution for the entire second half, but for a period of time, it certainly can be,” Theo Epstein, Cubs’ president of baseball operations, said on WSCR 670-AM. “And things have a way of taking care of themselves…Use your eyes. Watch what the pitchers are doing, what you think you can expect out of each guy and make good decisions just putting the team’s best interest first.”
While the Cubs don’t boast a go-to long reliever besides Montgomery, Randy Rosario has been lights out since he entered their bullpen, showcasing a .60 ERA in 12 appearances. He’s gone at least two innings in four contests, too.
Demoting Montgomery to his old duties wouldn’t just diminish his skillset, but the Cubs’ staff would also be jeopardizing their pitchers’ stellar stretch. Ever since he acquired a starting role, the Cubs rank second in both ERA (2.70) and opponents’ BABIP (batting average on balls in play — .247), along with tying for sixth in opponents’ OBP (.297).
Granted, Montgomery isn’t the only hurler who’s aided their production. The Cubs own the second-lowest bullpen ERA (2.74) in the majors, and Lester (2.10 ERA) is pitching some of the best baseball of his career. Nevertheless, like Lester, Montgomery’s starts have put less pressure on their relievers.
Chatwood can’t say the same. After signing a three-year, $38 million deal in the offseason, the righty possesses the highest walk rate (20.0 percent) among big-league starters. Even with a 3.95 ERA, he hasn’t lasted longer than 5.1 innings in each of his last nine starts, taxing the bullpen as a result. With setup man Carl Edwards Jr. on the 10-day disabled list and closer Brandon Morrow headed there as well, Chatwood’s issues are costly for their healthy arms.
Using a six-man rotation would give veterans, like Lester and Darvish, extra rest down the stretch, along with giving the organization extra time to determine its postseason rotation. But if the debate comes down to Montgomery versus Chatwood, it’s an obvious answer. If the Cubs’ brass goes in the other direction, they’ll pay the price — worth far more than Chatwood’s questionable contract.
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