Late Monday night, the Royals continued their trading ways, engineering their second deal in as many days. This time, it was catcher Martín Maldonado who was shipped out of town, this time to the Cubs for 30-year old left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery should be somewhat familiar with Royals fans, as he was a compensatory pick for them in the 2008 draft, selected 36th overall out of high school in Santa Clarita, California. He quickly excelled in the minors and by 2010 was named the #39 prospect in the league by Baseball America. He reached Triple-A by 2011, but had a rough year in Omaha. He returned to Omaha in 2012 and struggled some more, leading to a demotion to Double-A. That December he was included in a trade with Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Patrick Leonard to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliott Johnson.
After two more underwhelming years in Triple-A in the Rays organization, Montgomery was shipped to the Mariners just before the 2015 season for pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. He would make his MLB debut that year, just a month shy of his 26th birthday. Later that year he became the first Mariners lefty ever to throw a complete game shutout with 10 strikeouts and no walks, doing it against his former team, the Royals.
He posted a 4.60 ERA in 16 starts his rookie season, but was sent to the bullpen in 2016. Montgomery flourished in a relief role, and in mid-season the Cubs were interested in him enough to acquire him and minor leaguer Jordan Pries for first baseman Dan Vogelbach and pitcher Paul Blackburn.
Montgomery was a solid swingman for the Cubs over the next two and a half seasons. In 2017, he was brought on in relief in Game 7 of the World Series and recorded the final out, collecting his first Major League save. From 2016-2018, he had a 3.35 ERA with 278 strikeouts in 354 2/3 innings and 4 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
But Montgomery missed his old teammates as they were winning a World Series. As he told Rustin Dodd back in 2016, seeing the Royals in the post-season gave him some pangs of regret.
“I kind of felt the feeling of ‘What if?’” Montgomery says. “I could have been there. I should have been there — if I’d have done this differently or if I’d have just took this person’s advice.”
Going into this year, Montgomery had made 61 relief appearances and 38 starts with the Cubs and he looked to get back into a starting role. When it was clear he was ticketed for the bullpen he asked for a trade to give him a chance to start again.
“From a career perspective, looking at how it was taking shape, I thought I was best suited to be a starter.”
Montgomery got off to a rough start this year, giving up six runs in his first 2 1⁄3 innings of relief, but was battling a shoulder injury that would land him on the injured list in mid-April. He returned in May and had a very good stretch for over a month, giving up just four runs in 16 1⁄3 innings from May 9 to June 21. But a pair of rough outings at the end of June ballooned his ERA back up and he had a 5.67 ERA overall with the Cubs at the time of the trade with 18 strikeouts and 13 walks in 27 innings.
The impact this city has had on my career and my family is immeasurable. Thank you @Cubs and Cubs fans - it was a privilege to be a Cub. I’ll always cherish my time here, but I’m thankful for this new opportunity, back where it all started with the @Royals! #AlwaysRoyal pic.twitter.com/oyYSX2Hx8G— Mike Montgomery (@MikeMontgum22) July 16, 2019
Montgomery has been a solid, albeit not spectacular pitcher in a starting role. In his career, he has a 4.03 ERA with 6.9 strikeouts-per-nine innings and a .718 OPS against in 56 starts covering 292 2⁄3 innings. As a reliever he has a 3.35 ERA with 6.8 strikeouts-per-nine innings, and a .690 OPS against in 179 innings. Montgomery does not have a platoon split in his career, faring equally well against righties as he does against lefties.
The lefty sits at 92 mph with his fastball, but has a deep mix of secondary pitches and relies on his slider 30-35 percent of the time. He also frequently throws a curveball and change up. His change up ranks as one of the best among all relievers from 2016-2018, according to Fangraphs.
Montgomery succeeds when he’s keeping the ball on the ground. From 2016-2018, he had a 58 percent groundball rate, 12th-best among relievers. That rate has dropped significantly this year, and Montgomery is allowing more line drives and a higher hard hit rate than he ever has in his career.
Montgomery has a 6.21 FIP this year (as a reliever) and a 7.71 FIP over his last 10 games. He has had three appearances where he didn't allow a runner; each was just one batter long.— Shaun Newkirk (@Shauncore) July 16, 2019
His Statcast data almost couldn't be worse. pic.twitter.com/z6Ds7PfO98
Montgomery will immediately join the rotation and is scheduled to start on Friday. Dayton Moore spoke to Alec Lewis about the opportunity Montgomery has in Kansas City.
“He clearly wants to start,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We have an opportunity to start as you guys know with the trade that we made for Homer Bailey. Monty has been used in a very versatile role over there. He started. He’s pitched middle. He’s pitched situational. It’s just a good opportunity to get him back and put him in the rotation.”
Montgomery is under club control through the 2021 season, and is already arbitration eligible. He earns $2.44 million this year, making this trade essentially a net wash financially with the Royals dropping Maldonado’s $2.5 million salary. He could earn $3-4 million in arbitration next year, and perhaps even more considering he will move to the rotation.
The Royals will be have to be banking that his poor performance this year is based on his injury or a small sample size, and not the beginning of a serious decline. Even with the controllable years, he is likely not part of the next contending Royals team, but another stop gap to fill in for a depleted pitching staff. But if he can turn his career around, he could potentially be a flippable asset, even if he moves back to the bullpen. Pitching is always in demand, particularly left-handed pitching, and the Royals could potentially get more for Montgomery than they ever could have for Maldonado. At least, you hope that is what the Royals are motivated by, and not by a need to improve the current version of the club.
There is still risk - if Montgomery continues to pitch like he did earlier this year, he will be a non-tender candidate before too long. Montgomery just hit the wrong side of 30, so the aging curve may catch up to him sooner rather than later.
It may be a bit of a head-scratching move when we’re used to rebuilding teams trading veterans for prospects, but you can kind of see the rationale behind it. If the Royals can improve their current club while also planning for the long-term, then kudos for killing two birds with one stone. But threading that fine line is difficult, and attempts to do so could compromise the future upside of the rebuild. Hopefully Montgomery can emerge as a valuable asset to bring in a player with that upside.