Mike Montgomery

Cubs part ways with Justin Grimm, opening up bullpen competition

Cubs part ways with Justin Grimm, opening up bullpen competition

One of the longest tenured member of the Cubs bullpen is no longer a part of the equation. 

The Cubs released Justin Grimm Thursday afternoon, parting ways with the 29-year-old right-hander.

Grimm was originally acquired from the Texas Rangers as part of the Matt Garza move back in July 2013. Only Pedro Strop has been a part of the Cubs bullpen longer than Grimm.

Since then, Grimm has pitched in 263 games in a Cubs uniform, posting a 3.82 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 10.3 K/9.

Grimm was stellar in 2015, setting career bests with a 1.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 12.1 K/9. In the last two seasons, however, Grimm has pitched to a 4.83 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, including a 5.53 ERA in 2017 while spending time shuttling between Triple-A Iowa and the big leagues. 

He was not active for either postseason series in 2017 and allowed 6 runs in 4.1 innings during the 2016 playoff run.

Grimm gave up 6 hits, 4 runs and 2 homers in 4 innings this spring. He was out of minor-league options, so he had to be kept on the big-league roster or else passed through waivers.

The Cubs now can incorporate another arm into the bullpen mix, choosing from a group of guys that include Eddie Butler, Anthony Bass, Shae Simmons and Dillon Maples.

[8 guys who may provide an unexpected lift in Cubs' 2018 bullpen]

Maples throws 100 mph and has a devastating slider, but still may be best served starting the year in the minors to fine-tune his control.

The Cubs could opt to go with Butler — who is also out of minor-league options — in the final bullpen spot and give them two relievers (Butler and Mike Montgomery) capable of pitching multiple innings in relief. Simmons also has extensive big-league experience.

Randy Rosario, 23, could be an option, as well, but he's a lefty and the Cubs already have three southpaws locked into the bullpen (Montgomery, Justin Wilson and Brian Duensing). It would be hard to see the Cubs use half of their bullpen spots on lefties, even if Wilson, Montgomery and Duensing are all adept at getting right-handed hitters out.

The Cubs should roll with a 6-man rotation in 2018

The Cubs should roll with a 6-man rotation in 2018

Joe Maddon's former team — the Tampa Bay Rays — is planning on going with a four-man starting rotation in 2018.

But Joe Maddon's current team may be better served by going the opposite route.

The Cubs are in a completely different place than the retooling Rays and with World Series expectations on Chicago's North Side, the season turns into a seven-month-long marathon, not just the six months of regular season.

Theo Epstein's front office has built a team with an eye on playing all the way through the end of October and will need Maddon's coaching staff to keep everybody healthy and peaking at just the right time.

A six-man rotation could be the best way to accomplish that.

The Cubs are always trying to stay ahead of the curve, setting new trends instead of following. Maybe the way the Rays are thinking of things will ultimately be the newest fad, but that also places a lot of pressure on the bullpen to fill more innings than ever before.

The bullpen bubble burst — at least partially — last fall when every team struggled to get consistent outings from their relievers. The World Series was riveting and intense, but part of the reason it went that way was the inability of almost every Astros and Dodgers reliever to consistently get outs.

Cubs relievers faded down the stretch, too, struggling through a couple of rocky months before a rough October. Part of the reason for that was fatigue.

In 2017, the Cubs were coming off a season that stretched past Halloween and featured career highs in innings for several players. They were hoping to ease that burden and in turn, inadvertently put too much on the plate of the bullpen.

Maddon let his starting pitchers throw more than 100 pitches just 46 times last season and only nine times did a starter toss more than 110 pitches. The season high was 116 by Jose Quintana on Sept. 24 in a complete game shutout of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The thought process was simple: Keep your starters fresh and feeling good in hopes of making another World Series run.

But that didn't quite work out for multiple reasons, including the bullpen issues.

Moving to a six-man rotation could be the best of both worlds in 2018. It would give the Cubs a chance to rest their starters more than normal, giving them an extra day in between outings.

And with that extra day of rest, that could mean Maddon may feel more comfortable unleashing his starters for 115 or more pitches when their performance warrants it, thus taking some of the burden off the bullpen. 

The Cubs also have the personnel to do it, with Mike Montgomery ready to step into the rotation at any time. He gives the team six good options in the rotation and even if any starter goes down to injury, they're in a fine position to simply move back down to a five-man turn.

Thanks to the versatility of the Cubs position players, they don't have to carry as many bench bats and can subsequently roll with 13 pitchers on the 25-man roster. So even with a six-man rotation, the Cubs could still have a normal seven-man bullpen.

There are a couple of issues with the whole six-man rotation, however.

For one thing, starting pitchers are extreme creatures of habit and they plan their bullpens and workouts in between starts around the fact they are throwing every five days. It's tough to see a seasoned veteran like Jon Lester easily adapting to getting an extra day in between outings.

When the Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation in the past, Lester and the other starters have been unhappy with the move. If the players won't buy in, obviously there's no real advantage to going against the grain with an unconventional rotation.

There's also the numbers, which indicate nearly every MLB pitcher struggles when facing the opposing order a third time through. The reasoning is simple: Each hitter in the big leagues is the best of the best and the more often they see a guy's stuff or arm angle on a given day, the easier it is to make adjustments.

However, this Cubs rotation may be the bunch to try something new.

Lester, Montgomery, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish all get better as the game goes on and Jose Quintana's jump is hardly worrisome — .690 opponent OPS first time through the order, .675 OPS second time through and .754 OPS third time.

If ever there was a team and a time to move to a six-man rotation, the 2018 Cubs could be it.

Yu Darvish's arrival took a starting spot from Mike Montgomery, but he's still mighty valuable to Cubs' championship hopes

Yu Darvish's arrival took a starting spot from Mike Montgomery, but he's still mighty valuable to Cubs' championship hopes

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.

NBC Sports Chicago is on Apple News. Favorite us!