If the Chicago Cubs had begun last season with Mike Montgomery in the rotation, they would be in a better position to sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
The Chicago Cubs almost began 2017 with Montgomery in the starting rotation. Jason Hammel‘s option wasn’t picked up. Instead, the Cubs signed Brett Anderson. During spring training, Anderson and Montgomery competed for the last spot in the starting rotation. Eventually, it was decided that Anderson would be the starter and Montgomery would begin the year in the bullpen. However, Anderson was terrible and it wasn’t long before he was injured too.
When Montgomery got his chance as a starter, he was good. In 2017 Montgomery pitched 69 1/3 innings in 14 starts. In those outings, he pitched to a 4.15 ERA, with 56 strikeouts, 21 walks, 58 hits and seven home runs allowed. So coming into the 2018 season Montgomery had shown the Cubs that he could be a quality fifth starter in the rotation.
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Between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Montgomery said that he wanted to be a starting pitcher. Plus at age 28 it was reasonable to hope that Montgomery could still improve as a pitcher and he did. In 2018 Montgomery pitched 97 2/3 innings in 19 starts. He lowered his ERA to 3.69, with 70 strikeouts, 28 walks, 104 hits and eight home runs allowed.
Having Montgomery available as a sixth starting pitcher is extremely valuable to a competitive club such as the Cubs. Part of the decision to not begin 2018 with Montgomery in the starting rotation was to hold him back in reserve in case something happened to one or more of the other starting pitchers.
However, the 2018 club did have a lot of other possibilities for depth in the starting rotation. Eddie Butler, Alec Mills, Luke Farrell, Adbert Alzolay, Jen-Ho Tseng and Duane Underwood Jr. all could have been reasonably expected to make starts at the major league level in 2018.
Injuries, poor performance prompted moves
As we all know the Cubs did end up needing to move Montgomery into the starting rotation because Darvish ended up missing the majority of his starts due to injury. But Mills, Farrell, Tseng and Underwood all ended up making starts too.
But even if the Cubs didn’t hold Montgomery in reserve as a sixth starter, the front office could have still gone out and traded for Cole Hamels or some other starting pitcher in 2018. If things with Darvish had played out exactly the same way, perhaps the front office would have needed to trade for a starting pitcher earlier in the season or a different pitcher than they ended up doing so in reality.
The 2019 Chicago Cubs player salary situation was foreseeable. Yes, there still are some unknown factors such as precisely how much arbitration-eligible players will earn. There are also some fluky aspects to players’ salaries such as Carl Edwards Jr. becoming arbitration eligible by exactly one day.
Beginning the 2018 season with Montgomery in the bullpen would have made it easier on the front office to stay under the luxury tax in 2018. That was important to make sure they reset their luxury tax penalties because they were definitely going to go over the luxury tax in 2019. It is only a question of how high above the luxury tax the Cubs are going to go in 2019.
Montgomery in the starting rotation also would have put the Cubs in a better luxury tax position for 2019. Without either Darvish or Chatwood on the payroll now the Cubs could have still exercised Hamels option and had money leftover. With free agents such as Harper and Machado available this offseason they are worth planning ahead the year before.