Absent greater context, the Cubs trading Mike Montgomery to Kansas City for Martín Maldonado makes a lot of sense. The goal of any trade should be to help all sides involved by swapping redundant or under-utilized players in order to shore up respective weaknesses. Whether that means talent, payroll, club control, or simply good business, this latest move checks all the boxes.
Thing is, we can’t just look at this on the surface and chalk it up to a simple one-for-one move because that’s not what’s going on here. Well, maybe for the Royals, who opened a spot in the rotation by trading away a suddenly competent Homer Bailey and who had only signed Maldonado for this season. That’s a no-brainer flip that brings Montgomery back to the team that drafted him No. 36 overall in 2008.
From the Cubs’ perspective, however, there are a good deal of curious ripple effects that may only be revealed in the fullness of time. The most obvious of those is that they now have three catchers on the roster, a not-unfamiliar situation given the construction of their 2016 World Series team, which then leads to several additional questions.
The most pressing of those won’t have to be answered for another week or so, as Willson Contreras is going to the 10-day IL with a foot strain. He was apparently very adamant about getting the start Monday night and the Cubs made it clear that the IL stint was mainly precautionary — I’m just glad they actually remembered they could use it at all — so the trade wasn’t about finding a replacement.
From the sounds of it, the Cubs had actually been engaged with KC for a while and saw recent developments as reason to pounce on a deal. Remember, the elimination of August waiver trades should make teams more aggressive ahead of the July 31 deadline.
“We’ve been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they’d been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that,” Epstein said. “We’d actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time.”
This is really interesting from a few different angles, namely that the part about “working on a version of the deal.” That could mean a lot of different things and it’s pretty easy to jump to speculation about Whit Merrifield, whose reserve trade price has reportedly been set at “three major league-ready players who could help them right now.” But Montgomery could presumably have been part of such a package, so where does that leave things?
We’ll circle back to that here in a bit, but let’s first look at what’s happening for the Cubs over the rest of the season. They now have a catcher possessed of elite framing skills, something that should help an aging pitching staff that no longer has a great deal of margin for error when it comes to missing spots. Even if Maldonado’s impact in that regard is only incremental, and his offense doesn’t figure to help, he might also serve as a mentor to Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini.
And maybe, as many others have suggested, this move makes Caratini expendable. More than serviceable, the switch-hitting backstop has earned himself regular playing time with his offense and a growing rapport with the staff. But as I’ve said for the past two years, it’s possible that Caratini’s value is still greater as a trade piece than in what he brings as part of a three-headed catching monster.
Caratini is basically like Montgomery in that regard, except his actual value is still far higher than his intrinsic value. Had the Cubs opted to move on from Montgomery this winter or last season, for instance, they’d have gotten a great deal more in return. As it is, Monty is still valuable to because he’s a lefty starter who still has two more years of control.
But that value in this case only netted a 32-year-old catcher who’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. That qualifier actually makes you question whether the Cubs would really be willing to part with Caratini after all. Unless they extend Maldonado or pursue another backup option this winter, their catching prospects aren’t going to be ready to come up for another two years or so. And don’t forget that part of the reason Maldonado wasn’t in Chicago in the first place is that he wanted a starting spot, so he’s probably just a short-term piece.
If we operate under that premise, Joe Maddon is going to have to find a way to balance three catchers for at least two months. That probably means playing Contreras in the outfield more often, a possibility we’ll explore in a separate piece here at CI. Caratini could be optioned to Triple-A, but he’s not likely to take that well and his bat is too important to remove at this point.
We could also see either Contreras or Caratini at first base more frequently, both to expand opportunities for playing time and to ensure Anthony Rizzo gets ample rest down the stretch. But none of that addresses the Cubs’ deficiencies at second base and center field, each of which has seen well below-average offensive output to this point.
That’s where Merrifield comes in, at least in the minds of those fans who see a guy who can play both positions while hitting incredibly well out of the leadoff spot. There really isn’t a better fit for the Cubs from a hypothetical standpoint, though making it work is another story entirely. Of course, that value we just talked about in Caratini could make him an attractive piece. And perhaps the Royals would see Albert Almora Jr in a similar light.
Then there’s Ian Happ, who is hitting .400 with four homers and only 13 strikeouts against eight walks over his last 11 games. He’s also been playing more second base than he had early in the season, a possible indication that the Cubs are grooming him for the next step. That could be a return to Chicago, or perhaps its a means by which to increase his trade value. I’m typically loath to put forth trade proposals, but the pieces involved here at least make sense.
And while some of that may seem like the typical meatball tactic of giving up sub-par pieces — other than Caratini — for a stud player, we should look back at the idea that value comes from different places. Merrifield is under control through at least 2022 with a club option for another year, but he’s also going to be 31 next season and the Royals might be looking to hedge their bets against his potential trip down the back side of the age curve.
There’s also the notion that KC could look at some of these Cubs as being better utilized with an opportunity to play ever day in a different environment. If that’s the case, they wouldn’t be the only ones who look at the Cubs outfield and see stagnant player development as a result of overcrowding.
Of course, it’s not simply a matter of the Cubs being able to meet the basic definition of the Royals’ needs. The aren’t the only team sure to be interested in acquiring a versatile bat on a very reasonable $4 million AAV deal, so the Cubs would have to present greater value than those other teams. Is it possible the Monty trade is a way for them do just that?
It’s perhaps a stretch, but maybe those conversations Epstein talked about involved more moving parts that have yet to materialize. The opportunity to make this move came together quickly because of the situation, but maybe the surplus value from Montgomery’s control and role is being viewed almost like store credit for something else.
Or maybe it’s not that at all and the Cubs were simply looking to give the lefty the chance to start he’d been seeking for the past three years. There were reports prior to last season had he had requested a trade, though his camp quickly backtracked on that. According to very well-placed direct sources, Montgomery had indeed been very vocal about his desire to start ahead of this season as well. He wasn’t openly disgruntled, mind you, but the team was made very clear about what he wanted.
Between that and his poor performance out of the bullpen, at least some of which stemmed from his inexplicable use as a lefty specialist, the Cubs may have simply taken the first chance they had to move him. But even if that’s all it is and there are no subsequent moves directly related to this trade, it’s pretty clear that the Cubs will be doing some shuffling.
Alec Mills can simply slide into Montgomery’s vacated roster spot rather than needing a more substantial move, while Maldonado fills the spot opened by Contreras hitting the IL. But the real fun starts when Contreras comes back, since someone is going to have to be moved one way or the other. And with Cole Hamels targeting a quick return, it’s not as simple as optioning Mills back to Triple-A.
While a trade like the one laid out above would no doubt clear things up, standing pat would require at least two players to be optioned or designated. And If Happ isn’t traded, he’ll probably be called up by the end of the month. That would displace one or both of Almora and Daniel Descalso, the latter of which fans have been all over for the last two months or more.
We’ve got about two weeks left to get this all sorted out, so gird your loins appropriately for the onslaught of info and rumors that are going to swirl around the Cubs in that time.