Let's be honest, Mike Montgomery didn't get what he wanted.
No matter how much truth there was to that report during the Winter Meetings that Montgomery wanted a spot in the Cubs' rotation or to be traded away from the North Side, he's never been shy when it comes to talking about his desire to be a major league starting pitcher.
That doesn't mean he won't do what's asked of him, though.
Montgomery got a starting role taken away from him as he reported to spring training, with the Cubs signing Yu Darvish to a six-year deal to build a super rotation, perhaps the finest starting staff in baseball. Lined up to be the fifth starter on a team with championship aspirations, he got bumped back to the bullpen as the front office laid down its expectations for 2018: World Series or bust.
"It’s something that I’ve learned and been a part of and experienced throughout my career, you realize that it is more beneficial to be someone that is a good teammate," Montgomery said last month at the outset of spring training in Arizona. "Winning the World Series a couple years ago and even getting to the playoffs last year, you realize being on a winning team is the most important. That’s why we play the game, that’s why we play sports is to win. I think my role will find a way. I think if I’m good, there will definitely be times where I’ll be where I want to be."
Montgomery's presence in the 'pen is part of what makes those championship expectations a little more realistic. Montgomery is a quality long reliever, so he strengthens a relief corps coming off a shaky 2017 postseason. On top of that, he gives the Cubs a de facto sixth starter, a guy they can count on when one of their five guys in the rotation eventually misses a start due to injury or fatigue or whatever. That's the nature of baseball. Heck, the Cubs have even dabbled with six-man rotations in recent seasons.
The Cubs didn't appear to have much quality depth past the five guys in the starting rotation before the Darvish signing. Remember Eddie Butler's 2017 season? He made it out of the sixth inning just once in 11 starts, and he might have been the next man up had there been an injury in the starting rotation. But Darvish's arrival changed all that, giving the Cubs a legitimate fill-in in Montgomery.
"At this point, I feel like I’ve experienced all different roles, so I’m ready for anything," he said. "Talking with Theo (Epstein) and Joe (Maddon), the season’s so long, so much can happen. I am ready. I think it’s important to get me stretched out, that way if something does happen or if the need arises for me to be in the rotation, then I’ll be ready.
"At the end of the day, if I’m good, I’m going to need to throw some innings for this team and help them out. And I think there’s plenty of ways to do that and still maintain my physical health and to keep me at my best."
The focus on not burning Montgomery out was a frequent presence in his comments following the Darvish signing and the realization that he'd be back in the same role he had last season. Montgomery made 14 starts in 2017, all in the last four months of the regular season. Listed out, though, his outings look like this, starting with his first start of the season on June 9: six starts, a three-inning relief appearance before the All-Star break, two starts out of the All-Star break, then eight relief appearances in less than a month, then four more starts, then two innings of relief, then a start, then two more relief outings and a start on the final day of the regular season.
Bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen is hardly uncommon. But that type of ping-ponging couldn't have been good for Montgomery's arm. And so while he's perfectly willing to take on a similar role in 2018 as the Cubs have their sights on winning their second World Series title in three seasons, he's asking for the team to be a bit smarter how about how he's used.
"I know last year toward the end, the workload got to me," Montgomery said. "But it was also something different and unique that you don’t see a lot where I’m making starts and relief appearances. I start and then I come out of the bullpen a few days later, kind of took its toll. For me, I wanted to pitch every opportunity I could, but maybe taking a step back and being a little smarter about my willingness, ‘I’ll pitch today, I’ll pitch tomorrow.’
"One of the things I was talking with them about was bouncing back and forth in the middle of the season and how to maybe be a little smarter about those transitions. Like not coming out of the bullpen right after I just threw six innings two days before. I think maybe those transitions are something we can work on.
"You want to have a long career, but you also want to give everything you’ve got right away. And sometimes that might put your health in jeopardy. But just balancing that is a learning process for me and for the team. Right now I feel good. As long as I feel good, I’m going to do all the things that I’ve done in the past to keep me there."
There will be an incredible amount of focus on the Cubs' stacked rotation of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Darvish, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood. But perhaps just as important a piece will be Montgomery, coming out of the bullpen to provide valuable relief innings and undoubtedly subbing in for a starter when the regularities of the baseball season deem it necessary. That depth behind those five guys in starring roles could end up being an important reason why the Cubs are playing deep into October for the fourth straight season.
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