Royals, Cubs Swap Role Players

The Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals completed a trade Monday evening, with the Royals sending starting catcher Martin Maldonado to Chicago in return for swingman Mike Montgomery.

While Montgomery was never part of the team’s stable of frontline talent, he’s been a useful role player for the Cubs since being picked up from Seattle in the Dan Vogelbach trade. Since that 2016 swap, Montgomery has put up a 3.68 ERA across 38 starts and 81 relief appearances for the Cubs. The idea of having a pitcher in a long-term role as a swingman/spot-starter is something largely dead in 2019 baseball, so Montgomery was a bit of throwback in this sense. He filled in admirably with a 3.69 ERA as a starter in 2018 with Yu Darvish injured and Tyler Chatwood issuing more walks than a corrupt local judge.

2019 has been a struggle for Montgomery, with shoulder and finger injuries limiting his availability and moderate control issues hampering his effectiveness. Montgomery is still likely a useful player over the long haul and isn’t a free agent until after the 2021 season, but the Cubs are quite rightly taking “now” as a priority over “later.” That Montgomery is the player heading to Kansas City is also fueled by the fact that Montgomery requested a trade this season. From a career standpoint, it makes sense for Montgomery to get an opportunity to start full-time; a starting pitcher is going to do better in free agency no matter how the CBA changes between now and the end of 2021.

If for nothing else, Montgomery will always possess a unique place in Cubs history as the pitcher who threw the final pitch of the 2016 World Series.

And in the “now,” the Cubs had other priorities. Catching has been a strength for the team, but Willson Contreras heading to the injured list with a foot issue creating some unwanted uncertainty at the position. Without Contreras, the Cubs only had a single healthy catcher on the 40-man roster in Victor Caratini. This close to the trade deadline, with no guarantee that Contreras would be back after the minimum IL stay, so the Cubs were put into a position where they couldn’t wait and see how his recovery goes. Remember, July 31 is now the trade deadline in Major League Baseball starting this year, which means that the Cubs can’t count on picking up a cheap catcher in mid-August if something unexpected happens in Contreras’s recovery.

I like that Taylor Davis, the previous emergency option, has turned into a bases-on-balls-beast in the minors this season, but given where the Cubs are in the standings, I’d be uneasy having to turn to him in a larger role. If the Cubs weren’t a contender or had a 15-game lead in the division, I might feel differently. Contenders generally need to over-engineer the roster, and Maldonado is useful even if Caratini turns out to get the bulk of the playing time.

It’s a bit of a weird trade on paper for the Royals. It’s not weird that they would be willing to trade Maldonado, given that the team is 33-62 and Maldonado is a 32-year-old catcher and a free agent at the end of the season. A stopgap solution brought in to assist the Royals’ young pitching with Salvador Perez out for the year, Maldonado did exactly what was expected. Literally, as Maldonado’s wRC+ of 73 exactly matches his career to-date.

Did the return make sense for the Royals? I tend to be of two minds when the Royals make unexpected trades. Let’s call those two minds “mean Dan” and “less-mean Dan.” Let’s start with the less-charitable take.

Mean Dan

While it makes perfect sense to be rebuilding, the Royals have shown a surprising resistance to applying that label to the team’s direction. The club constantly talks about quickly turning around the team, something which seems absolutely ludicrous to this analyst given the team’s lack of major league talent, minor league talent, or a wallet overflowing with cash. It’s possible that it’s just public relations, though rather ineffective public relations given the Royals have had one of the largest dropoffs in attendance post-World Series victory, rivaling those of the Marlins.

The team certainly hasn’t acted like one that believes they’re rebuilding, most recently based on Dayton Moore’s assertion that it would be crazy to trade Whit Merrifield (2020 age: 31) and rumors that the Royals are insisting on three MLB-ready players in return. Would a rebuilding team hang onto players like Lucas Duda or Chris Owings in April instead of looking at Brian Goodwin? Or make little attempt to pursue interesting talent that may need a change of scenery, players like Good Austin Adams and A.J. Reed? The Royals have already added Montgomery, sight unseen, directly into the rotation, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they think that Montgomery’s 2020/2021 team control meshes nicely with the team’s quick bounceback to contention. Maybe the Royals could have gotten a teenage lottery ticket as the Orioles did with Andrew Cashner, but that player would not have helped the team win the Central in 2021.

Less-Mean Dan

The Royals know that they’re rebuilding, and the crazy ask for Merrifield is simply a negotiating position. The team is aware that Montgomery won’t get the Royals to the playoffs in either of the next two years, but Maldonado had little long-term value to the team. If Montgomery can prove able to hang as a starter full-time, the Royals would be able to get more for a dependable 3/4 starter with two years remaining until free agency than they would for a veteran catcher free-agent-to-be. After all, the team managed to get something in return for two months of Homer Bailey, and while the player received isn’t a prospect, he’s at least an actual person that exists and plays baseball.

Martin Maldonado, like Mike Montgomery, won’t be a primary reason the Cubs make or miss the playoffs in 2019, but given the team’s needs, it’s a reasonable acquisition. And if Less-Mean Dan is correct, the Royals did fine as well.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

I’m not sure whether Mean Dan or Less-Mean Dan better understands the Royals’ actual position on the matter, but I don’t think that Montgomery is a bad return for the Royals. Maldonado probably isn’t worth much of anything to anyone, the Cubs probably weren’t interested in trading much of anyone except a guy they didn’t want on their roster anymore, and Montgomery is an interesting buy-low opportunity. I would have rather they have gotten a lottery ticket playing in the DSL, given their position, but it’s not clear anyone was even willing to trade that for Maldonado.

I’m more confused by the Whit Merrifield thing. Maybe the prospect hoarding has become so extreme that the Royals can’t get a good enough return on him, but he makes very little sense on that roster.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It’s unfortunate for the Royals, but though Whit is worth the Eaton or Archer package, I can’t see any team giving that up for a 30yo OF/2B. If I’m the Indians for example, I’d rather take a 1-year flyer on Derrick Dietrich or Scooter Gennett in FA this year. Rent-A-Bats are cheap, even good ones like Merrifield in his 30yo’s. Eaton came off a 6-win year, else these big packages are going more for starting pitchers.

Plus, the Royals have 4.5 years of control on Whit. They can get almost the same package by waiting until after the 2020 season, although they’d hold the risk of him maintaining his 4-WAR performance.

Smiling Politely
3 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

Each year Whit gets older, a team is less likely to want to trade for his future (even if the stats keep up in reality); if the Royals can get a passable starter for an old, backup catcher, then they could definitely get a valuable return for Merrifield. I think there’s a case that they might have more suitors in the offseason, but it’s hard to imagine it offsets the more likely downsides of waiting.