Chicago Cubs: Trading Mike Montgomery was inevitable

For more reasons than one, trading pitcher Mike Montgomery was a move that the Chicago Cubs needed to make, for the benefit of both sides.

Mike Montgomery will forever live in Chicago Cubs lore. There is no questioning that. What also cannot be questioned is that it has been time for the two sides to go their separate ways. That happened on Monday when the Cubs announced that they traded Montgomery to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Martín Maldonado.

Unforeseen factor

In fairness to Montgomery, the trade isn’t just about him. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, who missed Sunday’s game with a foot injury, was in line to start on Tuesday. Following the Cubs’ 6-3 loss on Monday, though, the Cubs announced he will go on the 10-day injured list (retroactive to July 13) with a right foot strain.

Although Contreras is not expected to be out longer than 10 days, the Cubs found themselves down to Victor Caratini and Taylor Davis on their catching depth chart. They likely could’ve gotten by in the short-term with the duo, but Contreras’ injury expedited trade talks between the Cubs and Royals for Maldonado.

In this sense, Montgomery became a victim of unforeseen circumstances. The Cubs needed a catcher, and the left-hander was the price to pay to get one. Be that as it may, the fact of the matter is that a trade was long overdue.

The Cubs have used Montgomery exclusively in relief this season, though the 30-year-old has struggled and is in the midst of his worst MLB season. In 20 games (27 innings) this season, Montgomery holds a 5.67 ERA and .327 batting average against.

Starter vs. reliever

The latter two figures are easily the highest that Montgomery has posted since he made his MLB debut in 2015. It’s obvious that the Cubs needed Montgomery to be better, especially since he has been one of two lefty relievers (with Kyle Ryan) in the Cubs bullpen for much of the season.

In Montgomery’s defense, he has expressed his desire to start on several occasions over the last few seasons. Montgomery’s career ERA as a reliever (3.22) is actually better than as a starter (4.03).

However, he’s pitched fewer innings in relief (179) than as a starter (292 2/3). For whatever reason, though, his ERA in relief has jumped since a stellar 2017 out of the Cubs bullpen:

2018 as a reliever: 5.13 ERA, 19 games, 26 1/3 innings
2017 as a reliever: 2.49 ERA, 30 games, 61 1/3 innings

Conversely, Montgomery was much better as a starter in 2018 — in place of the injured Yu Darvish — than he was in 2017.

2018 as a starter: 3.69 ERA, 19 starts, 97 2/3 innings
2017 as a starter: 4.15 ERA, 14 starts, 69 1/3 innings

Montgomery’s fit on 2019 Cubs roster

Perhaps he’s more comfortable as a starter than coming out of the bullpen. According to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, Montgomery requested a trade earlier this season, presumably due to his desire to be a starting pitcher.

No matter the reasoning, the Cubs entered 2019 knowing Montgomery wasn’t going to be in their starting rotation. Barring injuries, the team was set to roll with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels, Darvish and Jose Quintana. They did just that.

Montgomery wasn’t even the Cubs’ definitive sixth starter, a title that belongs to Tyler Chatwood. After an abysmal 2018 season, Chatwood was essentially unmovable due to the remaining two years and $25.5 million on his contract.

Unless Chatwood’s struggles continued, which they haven’t, Montgomery was always going to be a reliever for the 2019 Cubs. The team had several chances to give him a start (June 20, 25, 27 and July 1) and didn’t, instead starting Chatwood and top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay.

The bottom line

With the Chicago Cubs having more bullpen arms than available spots, Montgomery became expendable. As things now stand, the team’s bullpen features Craig Kimbrel, Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Ryan, Chatwood, Brad Brach and Randy Rosario.

Carl Edwards Jr. is still with Triple-A Iowa on a rehab assignment, and the Cubs are in the market for another solid left-handed reliever. If they acquire the latter, Rosario presumably would be sent to Iowa, meaning Edwards might stay there until rosters expand in September, or if an injury pops up.

Between all of these factors, Montgomery was the odd man out. In a sense, it was a matter of time before he got dealt, and his struggles in relief (plus Contreras going down) only expedited the process.

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Montgomery will always be remembered in Cubs history as the pitcher who recorded the final out in the historic 2016 World Series. Things have changed, though, and it was time for the Chicago Cubs and Montgomery to go their separate ways, for the benefit of both sides.