So What Do the Cubs Have in Mike Montgomery?

In a deal that’s been rumored for months, the Cubs sent a stocky, lefty-hitting galoot with great makeup and clubhouse presence but without a solid position to an AL team in exchange for a power lefty relief pitcher. Though it didn’t have the sex appeal of Kyle Schwarber-for-Andrew Miller, the trade of Dan Vogelbach (and Paul Blackburn) to the Mariners for Mike Montgomery (and Jordan Pries) allowed the Cubs to address a big need without spending big to do it.

It feels like we’ve been talking about Vogelbach’s imminent departure for the last three years or so, a function of his lack of versatility in the field and the presence of a decent first baseman blocking his way in Chicago. Despite raking at every stop along the way of his minor league journey, the guy really only had value to the Cubs as a trade chip. Vogelbach, that is, not Anthony Rizzo. Trouble is, that value was also limited by the very things that kept him from see the Bigs with the organization that drafted him.

Under the circumstances, the Cubs brain trust appears to have pulled off quite the coup. Make no mistake, the Mariners are getting a guy who could be an excellent DH for years to come. But picking up a pitcher who bolsters their bullpen while also potentially addressing their future rotation questions, and only giving up a redundant commodity to do it, looks like a huge win on the surface.

If you’d like a quick look at the various other parties involved in this deal, check out Brandon Gitles’ breakdown here. Since Montgomery is the only one of any consequence as far as the Cubs are concerned, however, I’m going to focus solely on what he brings to the table. And from what I’m seeing, he’s quite capable of baking up a few cookies.

First things first, Montgomery just turned 27, isn’t arbitration eligible until 2019 and can’t become a free agent until 2022. That’s what is known in baseball circles as “team control” and it’s a very nice thing to have if you’re the Cubs. Primarily a starter over the course of eight minor-league seasons and a partial campaign in Seattle last year, Montgomery has really come on after being transitioned to the pen.

I know what you’re thinking: eight seasons in the minors seems like a lot. That’s true, but pitcher development is notoriously fickle and Montgomery began his professional career after being taken with the 36th overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Royals out of William S. Hart High School (Santa Clarita, CA). The 6-5, 215-pound southpaw knocked around the lower levels of the system for a few years before rising to AAA in 2011. And that’s when he started to look like a AAAA player.

For those not familiar with prospect parlance, that’s a guy who’s pretty much just organizational depth and who does little other than shuttle back and forth as needed. Montgomery spent 2012 between AA and AAA, after which the Royals added him to their 40-man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. Only 19 days after making that move, Kansas City traded Montgomery to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. Oh, Jake Odorizzi, Patrick Leonard, and Wil Myers were involved too.

Montgomery never made it past AAA with Tampa and was sent to Seattle in March of 2015 in exchange for Erasmo Ramirez. To that point, he had never posted an ERA lower than 4.29 at AA or higher. Getting excited about this guy yet? A 4.13 ERA over 11 starts in the Mariners system was enough to prompt them to call him up on June 2 to take the place of an injured James Paxton. If nothing else, debuting on my birthday makes Montgomery pretty darn cool in my book.

Everything started out pretty well for the rookie, who actually tossed back-to-back complete-game shutouts in his fifth and sixth career starts. The first even came against the Royals, thus fulfilling the popular trope of the player stepping up against his former team. Things got pretty ugly after that, however, as Montgomery notched a 7.49 ERA over his final 10 starts. Thus, the move to the bullpen in 2016.

Whether it was the psychological shift or the freedom to go max-effort more often, the change did him good. Montgomery has added a few ticks to his fastball and is throwing it far more often, largely eschewing the cutter, slider, and change in favor of the curve as his main secondary. After averaging only 91 mph on the heater in 2015, the new Cub has dialed it up to 94 this season and frequently touches the upper 90’s.

Along with those changes has come a decided break in his lefty/righty splits, which have completely flip-flopped from last season. In 2015, Montgomery was a reverse-split pitcher, allowing lefties to hit .303/.380/.461 with a .367 weighted on-base average while righties slashed only .245/.323/.402 with a .316 wOBA. This season, however, those respective lines have dropped to .162/.269/.254 and .241/.306/.353 with wOBA marks of .241 and .286. Speed kills, folks. While he’s clearly better against lefties, Montgomery is effective enough either way that he’s not just a LOOGY.

He doesn’t have big swing-and-miss stuff, but he keeps the ball on the ground (59%) and has only allowed one home run as a reliever (he’s allowed two more in his last two appearances, both starts). In 50.1 innings over 30 relief appearances, Montgomery has a 2.15 ERA (2.91 FIP) with 44 strikeouts (7.87 K/9) to just 16 walks (2.86 BB/9). Not necessarily the overpowering force of Miller, think Travis Wood with more velocity. And younger than either, which can’t be discounted.

Wood has been excellent as the go-to lefty reliever thus far, but to rely on that performance throughout the stretch run and the playoffs would be foolish. It’d be equally foolish to expect the new guy to maintain the microscopic home-run rate too, though there’s really no fun in having realistic expectations. The Cubs could utilize Montgomery as a spot starter this season, though his previous results in that role don’t necessarily speak to his immediate viability there. Under the tutelage of Chris Bosio and with a chance to pitch for a contender, however, it’s possible he could provide some insurance against the attrition of the current starters in the coming years.

Since he’s only now truly harnessing his potential and learning what he can be as a pitcher, the Cubs feel they may have discovered a very nice buy-low stock in Montgomery. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer may have just snagged a guy who could have commanded a much bigger return given more time to showcase his skills. While this isn’t the kind of move that instantly galvanizes the team, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from this front office. Low-risk, high-reward and without sacrificing any core pieces. Perfect.

Now we sit back and wait for the inevitable outcry following that first subpar outing from Montgomery. Ain’t life grand?

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