Eleven days before the non-waiver trade deadline, the Cubs started addressing their bullpen needs by acquiring left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners for minor league first baseman Dan Vogelbach on Wednesday.
The teams also swapped right-handed minor league starters. The Mariners acquired Double-A pitcher Paul Blackburn, while the Cubs got Triple-A pitcher Jordan Pries.
Team president of baseball operation Theo Epstein spoke to the media about the deal after Wednesday’s 6-2 victory over the New York Mets.
“Obviously we’ve been working hard to improve the ‘pen if we could, especially looking for a left-handed pitcher,” Epstein said. “And Montgomery is somebody that has really good stuff and has been performing well this year that we think is coming into his own. We’re really pleased to get him in what we think is a fair deal. He’s someone who has a chance to help us this year and long into the future and we paid a price to do that.”
Montgomery, 27, gives the Cubs another lefty to join Travis Wood in high-leverage situations. He has a 2.34 ERA in 32 appearances this season. His last two appearances have been starts, after making 16 starts in his rookie season in 2015.
Epstein said the Cubs have had Montgomery on their radar for a while and that he liked the fact that they didn’t take away from the big-league roster or lose any premier prospects — like Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres or Ian Happ – keeping them alive for a possibly bigger splash over the next two weeks. Making a move now also makes the front office a bit more comfortable as they head toward the deadline knowing they’ve improved the team and don’t have to force anything they may not be completely satisfied with come August 1.
“We kind of separated them into different buckets,” Epstein said of how he and his staff approached the relief market. “The guys who are established impact guys right now and obviously have a higher price tag. And we’ll still be in on those guys, we’re still interested in improving the ‘pen if we can. And then the younger, controllable pieces, including guys who we think have a chance to start down the line and Mike certainly fits into that category.”
Montgomery got a spot start to end the first half, and threw well enough (6 1/3 innings, five hits, one run, three strikeouts and no walks) in an 8-5 win over the Kansas City Royals that he got another start on July 17. He gave up four runs (three earned) on seven hits in five innings in an 8-1 loss to Houston.
Montgomery has five more years of control and while this move will impact the team in 2016, it was also done with more in mind.
“A roster is 25 guys and deals like this aren’t just about the right now, they’re also about the future,” Epstein said. “We needed to add controllable pitching. You have to look ahead, you can’t just build your bullpen or rotation one offseason at a time. You have to look down the line. We’ve done a much better job with developing position players than we have pitching and we need fill that void. If we hit on this deal and Montgomery becomes somebody who can help us now as we head down the stretch and help us later, then we’ll be very happy about this later.”
Overall, Montgomery has a 1.086 WHIP, has struck out 54, walked 18 and has given up three home runs in 61 2/3 innings. Two of those homers came in his starts.
More importantly as a reliever, the role he’ll hold on the North Side this season, he’s given up one homer in 50 1/3 innings. He has a 2.15 ERA out of the bullpen, with a 21.8 percent strikeout rate and 7.9 percent walk rate. He has thrown four wild pitches and hit five batters. Of his 16 walks, eight came in a two-week stretch when he was struggling in mid-June.
“This is a guy with a plus fastball, he’s been working in the mid-90s this year, even in his last two appearances as a starter he’s held the velocity the entire time out there,” Epstein said. “He’s got a plus curveball, he’s got a changeup that we like and he’s been working on a cutter. He’s got some swing-and-miss secondary weapons along with the power and he’s done a good job throwing strikes this year.”
He’ll certainly be a weapon against lefties. Left-handers are hitting .164 (11-for-67) against him with a .254 slugging percentage.
What may be most enticing about Montgomery is his ability to induce ground balls. In relief, Montgomery has produced a 59.3 percent ground ball rate, good for 11th in baseball among qualified relievers. Put that type of arsenal in front of the Cubs defense — a group that is far and away the best defensive unit in baseball according to park adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE) — and it should lead to positive results. Epstein pointed out that many of Montgomery’s grounders come to the left side of the infield, where the Cubs are rock solid with two of Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Javy Baez often manning that side of the dirt.
According to Brooks Baseball, as a reliever this season, Montgomery has gone to his four-seamer 41.9 percent of the time, both his curve and sinker a tick above 19 percent and his cutter and change right around 10 percent. The cutter gets 80 percent ground balls on ball in play tops in baseball among relievers who have thrown that pitch at least 50 times while also being among the top relievers in getting GB/BIP on his two-seamer, changeup and curve.
When it comes to striking guys out, Montgomery often will go to his curveball in two-strike situations, going to the pitch 31.1 percent of the time in those situations, a 60.9 percent jump from all situations. He gets a 41.2 percent whiff/swing rate on the offering, 21st among relievers with at least 50 curves thrown. He’s second in that category with his change at 53.1 percent whiff/swing, but just doesn’t go the pitch as frequently in any situation.
A former first-round draft pick in 2008, Montgomery was once a highly rated prospect in the Kansas City Royals system, making top 100 lists in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and reaching as high as 19 according to Baseball America. A disastrous 2012 season in the minors led to his status plummeting and he was eventually traded to Tampa Bay as the third piece (behind Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi) in a deal for James Shields. The southpaw continued to flounder in the Rays system and was moved to Seattle prior to the 2015 season, where he finally made his major-league debut. In 2016, Montgomery has thrived in a relief role, despite getting a couple starts prior to being acquired by Chicago.
“It says something about him that he had to earn this and it hasn’t been handed to him,” Epstein said. “He was a high draft pick and had a lot of prospect status. He’s had to fight through a longer development path and we think that’s made him stronger. He’s sort of put himself where he is right now and he’s about to arrive on the big-league scene. I think left-handers take a little bit longer. He’s 6-foot-5, these longer-limbed left-handers, their command takes a while to come around. He’s always had good stuff.”
Epstein pointed to lefty Jeremy Affeldt, best known for his time in San Francisco where he was a part of three World Series winner, as a similar comp. Affeldt had the similarly lofty status as a prospect, comparable stuff and a big curveball, but was derailed by poor command. Eventually he went to the ‘pen, turned a corner and became a pinpoint guy who had a long, solid career as a reliever.
Epstein said that sometimes with bullpen pieces, it’s best to make the move while they’re on their way to figuring it out rather than after they’ve already arrived.
“We think we’re getting him at the right time,” Epstein said. “As someone who is pitching really well this year but isn’t fully established in the big leagues. He’s certainly not a household name. But we think he’s got a chance to take off and maybe be the type of guy you couldn’t get in a deal of this size.
“I’m not saying he’s Andrew Miller. Very few are, no one is. But we traded for Andrew Miller in Boston when I was there in November of 2010 hoping he could put it together in the ‘pen someday and it did. That’s how a lot of guys get there. If you wait until they’re fully established, sometimes their price tag is so high that they’re virtually impossible to acquire. But if your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction and you’re willing to take a shot, sometimes there’s a big payoff in the end.”
The Cubs have been searching for left-handed relief help in their organization and outside of it. Clayton Richard just came off the disabled list and Gerardo Concepcion had a short tryout before returning to Triple-A Iowa.
In late and close situations, he hasn’t given up much offensively (seven hits, two for extra bases in 50 plate appearances, according to Baseball-Reference), but he has walked seven.
In a small sample of high-leverage situations this year, hitters are 5-for-30 (.167) against him with a .367 slugging percentage.
“He just turned 27 years old, we think there’s a lot of good pitching ahead of him,” Epstein said. “He’s got the confident makeup and stuff to move into the middle of a pennant race and play a role for us.”
Vogelbach was picked in the second round of Jim Hendry’s last draft with the Cubs in 2011. The slugging first baseman was stuck behind Anthony Rizzo and considered prime trade bait for a team in need of a first baseman/designated hitter type. He was slashing .318/.425/.548 with 16 homers and 18 doubles in 89 games at Triple-A Iowa this season. For being a power hitter, he has impressive strikeout to walk career numbers. He’s struck out just 65 more times than he’s walked in the minors (359 to 294).