Before the trade-deadline pressure really heats up, the Cubs made a deal to strengthen their bullpen on Wednesday, acquiring left-hander Mike Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners for minor-league slugger Dan Vogelbach.
Whether or not the Cubs make a big splash on Aug. 1, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein addressed a major need and created a degree of leverage and some peace of mind while waiting to see what the New York Yankees do with All-Star reliever Andrew Miller and 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman.
Even Montgomery’s career path made Epstein think about Miller’s trajectory. Montgomery had been among Baseball America’s top 40 overall prospects before the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons when the Kansas City Royals packaged him in the Wil Myers/James Shields/Wade Davis trade with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Montgomery posted a 2.34 ERA in 32 games (two starts) with the Mariners this year, putting up 54 strikeouts against 18 walks in 61-plus innings and generating groundballs almost 59 percent of the time. The Cubs also redistributed their depth, sending Double-A pitcher Paul Blackburn to the Mariners and getting back Triple-A right-hander Jordan Pries.
Montgomery just turned 27 this month and has the size (6-foot-5), first-round pedigree (36th overall in 2008) and service-time clock (not a free agent until after the 2021 season) to fit into a pennant race as well as the franchise’s long-range plans.
“We think we’re getting him at the right time,” Epstein said after a 6-2 victory over the New York Mets at Wrigley Field. “He’s certainly not a household name. But we think he’s got a chance to take off and maybe be the type of guy that a year from now you couldn’t get in a deal of this size.
“Sometimes, with these bullpen pieces, it’s important to get them when they’re on the way there, maybe haven’t fully arrived yet.
“I’m not saying he’s Andrew Miller – very few are, no one is – but we traded for Andrew Miller in Boston when I was there in November 2010 hoping he could put it together in the ‘pen someday.
“That’s how a lot of guys get there. If you wait until they’re fully established, sometimes the price tag is so high that they’re virtually impossible to acquire.
“But if your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you’re willing to take a shot – sometimes there’s a big payoff at the end.”
This is also relatively painless at a time when the Cubs don’t want to give up major-league assets like Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez. Already blocked by All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Vogelbach had the defensive profile, body type and powerful left-handed swing to become a designated hitter in the American League.
A second-round pick in 2011 – the final draft class for the Jim Hendry administration – Vogelbach reached Triple-A Iowa by his age-23 season and had been hitting .318 with 16 homers, 64 RBI and a .972 OPS through his first 89 games at that level.
Blackburn, the 56th overall pick in the 2012 draft, went 6-4 with a 3.17 ERA in 18 starts at Double-A Tennessee, but is perceived to have a back-of-the-rotation ceiling.
Montgomery is expected to join the team on Friday at Miller Park for the beginning of a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers. That won’t stop the Cubs from looking for much bigger deals.
“We kind of separate it into different buckets,” Epstein said. “The guys who are established impact guys right now will obviously have a higher price tag – and we’ll still be in on those guys. We’re still interested in improving the ‘pen if we can.
“And then the younger controllable pieces, including guys who we think have a chance to start down the line. Mike certainly fits into that category. He’s been a starter his whole career up until this year. And we’d certainly hold the door open to that in the future.”