The wonders of Cubs Manager Joe Maddon never cease, and before the first pitch has been thrown in the 2017 season, Cubs fans are seeing his strong baseball acumen at work again.
In February, after a somewhat under-the-radar and late offseason move the Cubs made in signing left-hander Brett Anderson to a one-year deal, it was made clear that Anderson and World Series icon Mike Montgomery wouldn’t necessarily be battling for a rotation spot. But neither of them would become permanent bullpen fixtures heading into Opening Day, either.
Maddon has mentioned that he will explore the option of using Anderson and Montgomery together in a shared fifth starter role. “It is and it isn’t [a battle],” Maddon told the media at Sloan Park. “We like them both.” And there Maddon goes again.
Pretty ingenious idea. Neither Montgomery nor Anderson have pitched over 180 innings in their big league careers, something else Maddon noted, making them both perfect candidates to be stretched out for a fifth starter job. With questions surrounding the lefty Anderson’s ability to remain healthy due to his exceptionally long injury history, the idea of switching the two pitchers off also ensures that the Cubs don’t lean too heavily on Anderson and are able to nurture his “injury prone” label in a way that maximizes his success. That’s something that should be quite palatable for the Cubs as well as the 29-year old pitcher, whose deal is littered with performance based incentives:
Brett Anderson: 3.5M plus 500K for 11 games, 750K for 14 and 17, 1M for 20, 23 and 26, 1.5M for 29 games. 10M max #cubs
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 26, 2017
As for Montgomery, there’s no doubt that the newcomer quickly secured his place in Cubs history, even before getting the final out of a dramatic World Series victory 108 years in the making. Montgomery, who came to the club in July 2016 in a swap with Seattle for prospect Dan Vogelbach, had a lot to prove and hadn’t been a familiar name for Cubs fans.
Montgomery had been bouncing through the minor league systems of the Royals, Rays, and Mariners until his debut in 2015. He pitched 90 innings in Seattle to the tune of a very stable 4.60 ERA, 4.64 FIP, and 4.43 DRA. Not exactly impressive, but understand that with the Cubs defense behind him, one of the best in baseball history, Montgomery was able to lower his ERA to 2.82, and though his walk rate rose a tad, he began striking out one more batter per nine in Chicago. Montgomery also saw his BABIP drop nearly 40 points, and has a quite clean injury history.
With this type of rotation setup, not only are the Cubs insuring that they are protected against both injury and inexperience, but they’re making sure that—should the need arise—there is emergency depth in their bullpen for those days when Maddon is hell-bent on only letting his starters throw five to six innings, or days when Cubs starters just simply don’t have enough gas in the tank.
“We’re thinking it’s almost like a hybrid moment. Maybe fold one back into the bullpen while the other one starts. And vice versa. Or just jump a sixth guy in there now and then to keep the other guys from being overworked too early.” Maddon told CSN’s Patrick Mooney.
So what’ll be the main difference here? Well, that’s easy to point out. Neither of these guys are Jason Hammel, the pitcher they are together essentially replacing. It became increasingly clear in the end of 2016 that, while Hammel is a quality pitcher and will probably be a strong asset to the Kansas City rotation which had quickly found itself in dire straits, Hammel was simply falling behind in a rotation of Cubs pitchers who were exceeding expectations night after night. Something that sadly, Hammel was unable to keep pace with in Chicago. Let’s compare the three pitchers numbers, for Anderson, we will use his 2015 totals as he missed most of 2016 with a back injury and only pitched 11 innings to the tune of an 11.91 ERA:
Note that of course, this is a rough comparison. Anderson has suffered a significant injury to add to the heap since he posted these numbers, and Montgomery has a significantly smaller sample size. But they’re a good jumping off point. One of the most important things to note is that both Anderson and Montgomery have exceptional ground ball rates — an asset to any Cubs pitcher of this era.
It’s not a bad thing that Anderson and Montgomery aren’t Hammel, it’s simply an objective statement. Neither of them replace him, Kyle Hendricks will bump up to the third starter spot in the wake of Hammel’s departure, something that feels to be a lot more of a comfortable fit than Hammel, who began to feel like a weak link in a very fragile rotation spot over the last couple of seasons.
The idea that Montgomery’s stint in 2016 was enough to inspire conversation about him in a fifth starter role for 2017 felt like a worthwhile discussion. Montgomery’s success was undeniable, and it didn’t have a complete feeling of late season baseball-type flukiness, either. But that’s not enough to bank your entire season’s fifth starter role on, especially when you’re talking about a pitcher whose never thrown more than 100 innings in any given season.
Anderson not only relieves the pressure that was left on Montgomery’s shoulders to carry the weight behind one of the best rotations in baseball, but it adds lefty depth to the mix, ensures that proper attention is given to Anderson’s health, and shores up a bullpen that’s never been shy about using long relievers (and it’s worked quite to their advantage — depth, depth, depth!)
Only time will tell whether or not the Cubs can maintain Anderson’s health, but if they can, this operation sure seems like a great starting point for a strong foundation of the 2017 season ahead.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports