So far this offseason, the Chicago Cubs have signed seven free-agent pitchers. That’s a lot. (According to ESPN Stats & Information, it’s actually the second-most ever behind the 2001 Rangers.) You may have heard of one of them: Yu Darvish.
Travis Sawchik has already written about who Darvish is as a pitcher, and how he and the Cubs needed each other, and I agree with most of that. I want to write about something else — namely, the signing’s impact on Chicago’s bullpen, and how it’s really rather bad news for one rather excellent pitcher: Michael Paul Montgomery.
The big reason for that, of course, is that Montgomery was, prior to Saturday’s news, projected as Chicago’s fifth starter. Following Sunday’s news, meanwhile, Montgomery is now projected as Guy Who Joe Maddon Uses for More Relief Innings Than You’d Exepect.
This second role was actually the one Montgomery played for much of 2017, throwing out of the bullpen in 30 out of 44 appearances, and averaging a bit over two innings in those games. Seven times, he pitched three or more innings in relief. Once, he threw 4.1 innings. No pitcher in the game who recorded as many relief innings also threw more innings per relief appearance in 2017.
All that pitching (when you add in his 14 starts, Montgomery threw by far the most innings of any player who appeared in relief in at least 50% of his appearances) and especially all that switching back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation began to wear on Montgomery. In early December, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Montgomery had expressed a clear desire to stay in the rotation in 2018.
#Cubs LHP Mike Montgomery would like chance to start or go to place where he can, sources close to the pitcher tell The Athletic. Has communicated desire to start to #Cubs, but not desire to go elsewhere if opportunity is not available, sources say. Role in ‘18 presently unclear.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 13, 2017
The Cubs were uniquely positioned to take advantage of an upgrade in their starting rotation, because Montgomery — unlike most other players used as either bullpen or rotational depth — can stay in the big leagues and contribute while still serving as depth. No need for constant shuttling between Triple-A and Wrigley.
That’s a particularly big deal for the Cubs, because Maddon has a puzzling and frequently infuriating tendency to trust only one or two relievers for whole stretches at a time, going to them for far longer, and with far more frequency, than one might typically expect. Montgomery is on the Good List. Woe betide those who fall onto the Bad List.
Without Montgomery in the ‘pen, Maddon would likely have gone to the recently re-signed Brian Duensing for most of his long-relief need, or perhaps the newly-acquired Brandon Morrow or maybe holdover Justin Wilson. But now it isn’t a question. Montgomery will be the long-relief guy, which will allow Duensing and Wilson to slot into their familiar and successful roles as spot relievers in the middle innings.
It would have been easy, coming into this offseason, to imagine that the bullpen might have been a point of weakness for the 2018 Cubs. Héctor Rondón and Pedro Strop, bullpen stalwarts for years, had shown significant signs of weakness in 2017, and the Cubs indeed let Rondón walk at the conclusion of the season. Strop stayed, but with asterisks.
Carl Edwards Jr., meanwhile, had shown bursts of terrifying wildness in between brilliance for much of the year, and Justin Grimm had spent far too much time on Maddon’s Bad List to be viewed as a foundational element of the rebuilt ‘pen. Duensing, though excellent, was a free agent, and Dillon Maples was something of an unknown.
Now, with Duensing re-signed, a combination of Morrow and Steve Cishek and Drew Smyly brought in from outside the organization, and Montgomery back in a relief role, the bullpen actually looks like it might be a source of some strength for the Cubs in 2018. In the National League, only the Brewers, Dodgers, and Nationals can rival it.
It’s hard to predict how relievers will do in any given year — in any event, we’re usually really bad at it — but it’s easy to predict that some of them are going to get hurt over the course of a major-league season. The way to counteract that is with depth, and now the Cubs have enough of it to make you think they’ll be able to withstand an injury or two.
As teams continue to experiment with non-traditional pitching roles, the kind of fluidity between the starting and relieving corps that the Cubs have used to positive effect will become more and more commonplace, just as AL teams have increasingly moved away from picking a single designated hitter and instead fill the role to the need, day by day.
That will mean that major signings, like Darvish’s, will continue to call for more integrated analysis than the old “Team X has a hole at first base and just signed a first baseman” reads that might have sufficed a generation or two ago. Darvish is a great starting pitcher, and he probably bought the Cubs a win or two more in the rotation. If things go right for Chicago, his impact will be nearly that great in the bullpen, as well.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.