By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Finding pitching is always the priority for Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.
A year ago, with his Cubs skyrocketing above the rest of baseball, it remained Epstein’s goal to add quality pitching depth. His rotation was the best in the league from ace to fifth starter, but the goal stood firm.
Epstein went out and acquired 27-year-old left-hander Mike Montgomery in a July trade that sent 2011 second-round pick Dan Vogelbach to the Mariners. There was no place for the slugging first baseman Vogelbach at the big league level, and the Cubs recognized Montgomery could provide them with value, not only for 2016 but well beyond.
What the Cubs were hoping for were nights like Tuesday, when Montgomery manned the mound and pitched a gem at Wrigley Field. He threw six scoreless innings in a 4-0 win over the Padres. All that could stop Montgomery was a limit in how deep in the game his arm would allow. His ERA now stands at 2.26 on the season after this sound showing.
“I felt strong throughout,” Montgomery said after his first win of the season.
Manager Joe Maddon explained that the Cubs are still stretching out Montgomery’s arm, from four innings in his first start to five the last time out and now six on Tuesday night. The Cubs are working carefully in acclimating Montgomery into the place of right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who’s sidelined with tendinitis in his throwing hand.
But as Epstein and the Cubs search for potential trade pieces for their inconsistent starting rotation, they should simultaneously consider the fit of Montgomery, who certainly looks the part of a capable starter.
The Cubs rotation entered Tuesday’s tilt with the Padres with a 4.60 ERA, ranking 17th in baseball. Last season, the Cubs were far and away the best rotation, with a 2.96 ERA. Far too often in 2017, the Cubs haven’t even been in position to win the game because of poor starting pitching.
Enter Montgomery, who has used his fastball to set up a sinker and force ground balls. In 51 2/3 innings this season, Montgomery has forced ground balls at a 61 percent rate. In Tuesday’s outing, he forced grounders at an 87.5 percent rate. That’s a B+ in an exam. The Cubs’ vacuums in the infield took care of the rest.
“We looked like normal on the infield,” Maddon said. “We played that normal kind of Cubs infield game we’ve gotten used to over the last couple years. It was really fun to watch.”
Montgomery could be just what the Cubs need in their rotation — a steady approach to each start and, ideally, a chance to win each time out. If he continues to force ground balls and frustrate hitters this way, the Cubs will only have to score a few runs for a victory.
The Cubs can count on Jon Lester as their ace and Hendricks when he’s back to health. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey have struggled for long stretches, part of the greater issues for the team’s rotation struggles. Eddie Butler has done fine in his role as the fifth starter.
But much more is needed from this rotation if the Cubs have plans for the postseason. Their chances at repeating as World Series champions start with the man on the mound each game.
Perhaps Montgomery could be just what this rotation needs moving forward.