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.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: