By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — As the start of the 2017 season nears, the Cubs are looking to replace the 15 wins that former rotation member Jason Hammel had last season.READ MORE: Doggy Daycare Owner Appalled After Cook County State's Attorney Declines To Prosecute State Inspector Jose Guillen, Who Was Caught On Camera Groping Her
The competition to fill that void is between left-hander Mike Montgomery and left-hander Brett Anderson for the No. 5 starter’s spot. Montgomery earned manager Joe Maddon’s trust late in the championship run of 2016 and saved Game 7 of the World Series. He will be stretched out this spring to prime him for a starting role.
The 29-year-old Anderson has good stuff but also encountered myriad injuries. He’ll be counted on as an alternative in the No. 5 spot if in the coming months the Cubs deem Montgomery to be more valuable out of the bullpen in a versatile role. The Cubs are still weighing how to best use Montgomery and Anderson. They could use a “hybrid” approach, Maddon said, rotating the two as the No. 5 starter and using a six-man rotation during other stretches that feature few off days.
Montgomery got the call for the Cubs in their Cactus League opener Saturday, walking two and striking out two without giving up a run in one inning of work against the Athletics. The split-squad Cubs won 4-3, while their other split-squad lost 8-6 to the Giants on Saturday.
“It was good to be out there,” Montgomery said. “I was a little erratic today. Once I get on the mound more over the next few weeks, I hope to be more consistent. Good to get it out of the way and the first one under my belt.”
Having been the last Cub on the mound in 2016 when the team clinched the championship and the first Cub on the mound in spring training here in 2017 wasn’t lost on the 27-year-old Montgomery.
“Pretty cool, definitely an honor,” he said. “It’s fun to get back out in front of the hitters, fun to be in front of the crowd.”READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Single Digits On The Way
Acquired from the Mariners in a trade last July, Montgomery established himself as a solid setup man for the Cubs. Prior to 2016, he’d been a starter in the big leagues, and the Cubs envision him returning to that role — if not this year, then soon.
“He is a 10-game-plus winner on an annual basis,” Maddon said Saturday. “I really think he has that in his abilities. I told him that — 10, 15 wins is in his capability level. It is all about fastball command for him and what to do with his breaking pitches. He has really high-quality stuff. If he can do that, the sky is the limit for him. As a scout, I believe the sky is the limit for him.”
Montgomery started five games for the Cubs in 2016, with a 3.33 ERA in those 24 1/3 innings. He had a 1.93 ERA in 12 appearances as a reliever.
With a career groundball rate of more than 60 percent, Montgomery would seem to be a good fit as a starter at Wrigley Field.
“I have been a starter for most of my career,” Montgomery said. “The preparation comes natural to me as far as getting ready for the season. I will say being in the bullpen last year helped me grow as a pitcher. I experienced things in pressure situations that I had not had as a starting pitcher.”
Montgomery doesn’t believe the uncertainty of his upcoming role will affect his performance either way.
“In my mind, to be efficient in both roles can just help me,” he said. “I learned so many things about using adrenaline and pitching situation wise in the pen. For me, I learned about how to take that urgency from the bullpen mindset into the starter role.”MORE NEWS: View Live Radar
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.