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Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Mike Montgomery doesn't need a detailed job description of the hybrid role the Cubs envision or a clear idea of when the rotation might need a sixth starter. Just be ready for anything, a lesson reinforced during the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7.

"I like that better," Montgomery said Monday at the Sloan Park complex. "Don't necessarily tell me, because then I don't have time to think about it. Just throw me in there and I'm ready to go."

While Joe Maddon essentially confirmed that Brett Anderson will be the fifth starter – if healthy – the Cubs manager already trusted Montgomery enough to get the final out that ended the franchise's 108-year drought.

Anderson's projected rotation spot is mostly a reflection of his health issues and Montgomery's versatility. The change-of-scenery thing Cubs officials talk up doesn't work on anyone everywhere. Jake Arrieta is the lottery ticket that turned into a Cy Young Award winner. 

But Montgomery is seen as a pet project for Theo Epstein's front office and the pitching infrastructure built by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode. 

"There's just a culture," Montgomery said, "especially with some of the veteran guys, that creates this pitching-friendly environment where you can learn and you can adapt. You can watch guys that are really good at what they do. 

"You combine that with the information and the scouting reports and talking to the video guys and working with the pitching coach. Obviously, with your mechanics, getting them squared away is important. But I think understanding who you're facing, what they like to hit (is also important). 

"The whole chess match part of the game – it's helped me a lot. It was being out there without a plan and just kind of winging it – and now (it's) putting a plan together.

"That's what these guys do so well. They just have a really good game plan and they execute it better than just about anybody in the game." 

Developing pitching talent at the major-league level is particularly important when the farm system hasn't felt a trickle-down effect yet and the scouting department has prioritized hitters at the top of the draft. 

Not that Montgomery is taking it for granted, but this is the first time he has reported to camp with his spot on the Opening Day roster already penciled into the team's plans. 

Not being on the bubble gives Montgomery the luxury to work on things, focus more on his craft and study how Jon Lester uses certain bullpen sessions to hone his fastball, down and in, down and away, up and in, over and over again.

"I love watching Jonny pitch," Montgomery said. "Being a lefty, too, it's just how consistent he is and how he can execute his fastball when he needs to or make a big pitch. It's kind of looking at them and saying: ‘OK, how can I get to that level?'

"It's cool to be in an environment like that. It really just breeds success for other guys that maybe mechanically aren't there yet, but they have the stuff. Once I get the mechanics down, then you take it to the next level of game-planning."

That's where Kyle Hendricks applied his Ivy League education, using sequencing, pinpoint control and sharp movement to overpower hitters and lead the majors with a 2.13 ERA last season.

"He's got a great memory," Montgomery said. "He can go out there and it's like he's got those reports on the hitters stuck in his head. For me, I've used it as more of a rough guideline if I need to fall back on something or I don't know where to turn in a certain situation.

"It just kind of gives you that safety blanket. You get in a tight spot, you take your chances on what you think is the best pitch. Having that information to begin with is huge."

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Epstein compared Montgomery's career arc to Andrew Miller's when the Cubs made the Dan Vogelbach trade with the Seattle Mariners. Montgomery checked so many boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to first-round pedigree (36th overall in 2008) and controllability (through 2021). 

After bouncing around the minors for the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays – and the biggest moment of his life – Montgomery will still be a Cubs Way test case.

"We think we're getting him at the right time," Epstein said last summer. "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. 

"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."

Cubs aren’t trading Yu Darvish this winter, despite reported inquiries

Cubs aren’t trading Yu Darvish this winter, despite reported inquiries

Whether the Cubs trade a member of their position player core this winter — i.e. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras — is to be determined. Both have been fixtures in rumors this offseason, and the Cubs may make a deal to replenish their barren farm system and retool their roster with the organization’s long-term stability in mind.

Yu Darvish, on the other hand, is a different story.

No, the Cubs won’t be trading Darvish this winter, despite the inquiries they received at the Winter Meetings this week, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post.

A year ago, this would be an entirely different conversation. Darvish was coming off a disappointing debut season on the North Side in which he made eight starts and posted a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings. He didn’t throw a single big-league pitch after May 20 due to a lingering arm issue that led to surgery last November.

2019 was only Year 2 of the lucrative six-year contract Darvish signed in February 2018. But between the injury and his struggles before it that season, the narrative entering 2019 was shifting towards Darvish being a potential bust.

The narrative around Darvish is obviously much different now, thanks to the stellar second half performance he put together last season. In 13 starts, the 33-year-old delivered a 2.76 ERA, striking out 118 batters compared to a mere seven walks in 81 2/3 innings.

Not only was Darvish walking the walk, but he was talking the talk. He was determined to turn things around after posting a 5.01 ERA in the first half, asking then manager Joe Maddon to start the Cubs’ first game after the All-Star break. The result? Six innings of two-hit, no-run ball with eight strikeouts and one walk. Darvish's comeback was officially on.

Bust? Darvish is far from it now. He opted in to the remaining four years of his contract earlier this offseason, calling the Cubs "perfect" for him.

If the Cubs were entering a rebuild, fielding Darvish trade offers would make plenty of sense. He's owed $81 million through 2023, a bargain compared to the deals Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million — Yankees) and Stephen Strasburg (seven years, $245 million — Nationals) earned this offseason. Darvish's contract is desirable, and trading him would help alleviate the Cubs' notoriously tight payroll situation, freeing up money for them to put towards other needs.

But the Cubs aren’t rebuilding, and trading Darvish would create a tremendous hole in a rotation with plenty of uncertainty after next season. José Quintana is set to hit free agency after 2020 and Jon Lester could join him, if his 2021 option doesn’t vest (he must pitch 200 innings next season for that to occur). Heck, even Tyler Chatwood's deal is up after 2020.

In one season, Darvish has elevated himself to the No. 1 pitcher in the Cubs rotation. The Cubs won't be better next season if they trade Bryant or Contreras, but they'd still be competitive and acquire assets for the future.

One player doesn't make a team in baseball, but the Cubs need Darvish in their rotation, not someone else's. Unless they're absolutely blown away by a trade offer, Darvish isn't going anywhere.

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Sports Talk Live Podcast: MLB 2019 Winter Meetings come to an end

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NBC Sports Chicago

Sports Talk Live Podcast: MLB 2019 Winter Meetings come to an end

SportsTalk Live is on location in San Diego for the final day of the MLB Winter Meetings.

0:00- Chuck Garfien, Tony Andracki and Vinnie Duber join Kap to recap the Winter Meetings. Tony was right-- the Cubs didn't make a move. Plus, should the White Sox have done more in San Diego?

12:00- Legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons joins Kap and Chuck. The talk about the price for pitching and what the Cubs might do with Kris Bryant. Plus, Gammons talks about a text he received saying the White Sox were talking with the Red Sox about Andrew Benintendi and David Price. Would that make sense for the Southsiders?

20:00- White Sox World Series winning closer Bobby Jenks joins Kap to discuss his emotional article in The Players Tribune. They discuss his injuries with the Red Sox, the back surgery that almost cost him his life and then his downward spiral into addiction.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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