Trading for Chris Archer sounds like a great idea in theory. It will be an obvious storyline when the ex-Cubs prospect matches up against Jon Lester on the Fourth of July at Wrigley Field.
Except the Tampa Bay Rays (43-41) have a slightly better record than the Cubs (41-41). There was enough bad blood after manager Joe Maddon used the escape clause in his contract that it complicated any hopes of the Cubs acquiring Ben Zobrist before the 2015 season. Tampa Bay’s asking price last summer for Matt Moore – a less-accomplished pitcher under club control through 2019 instead of 2021 – started at Kyle Schwarber plus.
The Cubs aren’t planning to promote Schwarber to face Archer on Tuesday, allowing him to continue working on his swing and his confidence at Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs have to factor in their inconsistent play and a somewhat dulled sense of urgency after winning the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years. Paying top dollar – and beating a team like the Houston Astros or Los Angeles Dodgers in the bidding war for a frontline starter – doesn’t seem realistic.
The Cubs aren’t performing at a level where team president Theo Epstein can ask the same Aroldis Chapman question: “If not now, when?” Instead of buying the brand name, the template for fixing the rotation might be the other lefty the Cubs acquired last July – Mike Montgomery – the guy who actually got the last out in the World Series.
“Obviously, I don’t think this is how we planned it,” Montgomery said recently on a Cubs Talk podcast. “But that’s the beauty of baseball. It’s never how it seems. Every season is really different.
“I just think it’s going to make us stronger later in the year. After winning the World Series, people say hangover, but I look at it more (as) we just have to get back to the little things that it takes to win games.
“We got a lot of young talent on this team, so sometimes you’re going to have stretches where you struggle, myself as well. It’s just about: How do you every day continue to find something that is either going to keep you where you need to be or get you back to where you need to be?
“We’ve still got our best baseball to play, that’s for sure.”
That optimal level might not come until 2018 or 2019 or 2020, assuming these young hitters mature and Epstein’s front office identifies and develops a next wave of pitching. Preparing for a future without Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, the Cubs projected Montgomery’s size, first-round pedigree, groundball rate and pitch mix, envisioning a core starter when they made that trade with the Seattle Mariners.
The Cubs saw a swingman the guys who run the day-to-day pitching infrastructure – Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode – could coach up. That’s why the Cubs won’t necessarily be locked into a finished product like Archer at the July 31 deadline.
“Obviously, you got to have the talent to begin with,” Montgomery said. “But I think it’s just a philosophy that pitching’s always going to be first and foremost. The hitting, I think, is a bonus if we can get it. But we don’t feel like we need to rely on it to win, because we know after last year that pitching is what wins you World Series.
“It starts with that. But at this level, it’s the ability to take everybody’s strengths and use them in accordance to whatever game, whatever hitter we’re facing. And (with) guys like Boz and Lester Strode, it’s the ability if you’re off – because you’re not going to be there the whole year – (to) get in there and say one thing to you that you didn’t even really see. Those kind of things add up.”
[VIVID SEATS: Get your Cubs tickets here]
After being such a valuable part of the bullpen at the beginning of the season (2.21 ERA in 36-plus innings), Montgomery now has a 3.58 ERA through five starts. Montgomery is beginning to show what the Kansas City Royals hoped for when they drafted him 36th overall in 2008, realizing the potential the Rays once acquired in the Wil Myers/Jake Odorizzi/Wade Davis/James Shields blockbuster deal.
After finalizing the buy-low trade with Seattle, Epstein thought Montgomery could be “the next Andrew Miller.” Maddon has talked up Montgomery as someone who could consistently win between 10 and 15 games a year.
“I just want to help the team win,” Montgomery said. “I like starting. I like that responsibility: Hey, today’s your day and you can pretty much win or lose a game for the team.
“That’s what I want, because I’m confident in what I can do. I don’t know what that’s going to mean, but I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned from these guys here more than anywhere I’ve been: (You can have) almost 200 wins, 2,000-plus strikeouts. You get to the point where it’s like all the accolades don’t really matter.
“The reason they got those is because no matter what they were doing, they were consistent in getting ready to go out for the next start. And that’s what I’ve taken the most out of here. If you have a good game, a bad game, it’s just such a small blip on the radar for them.
“One game, it doesn’t really matter. I got to keep that up for a long period of time, an entire season, for multiple seasons, so that’s kind of the focus. It’s just a mindset change.”
The bigger-is-better mindset may never change in a trade-deadline environment that gets broken down into buyers vs. sellers and winners and losers. But the defending champs don’t have to go after a big fish like Archer.