Cubs keep Andrew Miller in mind while making Mike Montgomery trade with Mariners

Cubs keep Andrew Miller in mind while making Mike Montgomery trade with Mariners

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.

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“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.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.