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Mike Montgomery: The Jason Hammel Replacement?

With Jason Hammel gone, the defending champs need someone to fill his spot in the rotation, and the lefty swingman looks ready to step up.

Sure, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last week. It was their first in a long, long time. They had a big (but perhaps exaggerated) parade. A few of the players got to gyrate and sing on Saturday Night Live. The celebration is on, and there’s no sign it’s going to stop anytime soon.

But the season is over, and the offseason waits for no one. Even if you’re a general manager in the midst of a month-long bender, there are decisions to be made.

The Cubs made one such decision on Sunday, choosing to decline pitcher Jason Hammel’s $12 million option and electing to pay a $2 million buyout instead:

Hammel was, for all intents and purposes, the Cubs' fifth starter. Cutting the least important guy in your rotation is typically not cause for much concern. But viewing Hammel as your average number five undersells how good he was since re-signing with the Cubs after they traded him in the deal that netted them Addison Russell. Here are Hammel’s stats as a Cub the past three seasons, both before the Russell trade and after he re-signed following the 2014 season, per FanGraphs:

2014 108.2 .220 8.61 1.90 4.52 0.83 24.2% 5.4% 18.9% 1.02 .272 78.4% 3.19 3.21
2015 170.2 .238 9.07 2.11 4.30 1.21 24.2% 5.6% 18.6% 1.16 .288 72.8% 3.68 3.47
2016 166.2 .235 7.78 2.86 2.72 1.35 20.8% 7.7% 13.2% 1.21 .267 76.0% 4.48 4.34

And here is his Steamer projection for 2017, also from FanGraphs:

28 155.0 7.79 2.67 1.29 .299 70.3% 4.34 4.30 1.7

Overall, Hammel was somewhere between decent and quite good during his time in Chicago, and that pattern figures to continue in 2017. Totally fine for a fifth starter! All you want out of a guy in that slot is to not abuse your bullpen every five days, and Hammel has been very good at that.

Considering the questions about his health going forward, however, you can understand why the Cubs made the decision they did. That extra $10 million they saved can be invested elsewhere next season, and there’s really no reason for Chicago to take an unnecessary risk on a guy who – as the playoffs further showed – is not essential to their team’s success.

So that raises the question: Who fills in for Hammel next year?

You might want to say, "A free agent!" But then you open your browser and excitedly type in "free agent starting pitchers 2017" and this is your first result…

So you eat your keyboard and throw your monitor through the wall.

That means there is a good chance that whoever takes Hammel’s place in the Cubs rotation will be someone already on the roster. Looking down the list, there’s one candidate who stands out above the rest: Mike Montgomery.

The Cubs themselves have indicated he's got their attention, too, but what he'll be as a starter is a bit of a mystery. Acquired in a trade with the Mariners in July, Montgomery finished 2016 with less than 200 big league innings under his belt, but as a 27-year-old, his age is likely more indicative of his upside (or lack thereof) than his inexperience.

A top prospect for years in the Royals system, Montgomery has always had good stuff, but his command often held him back. Here’s what Baseball America wrote about him in 2013, the last time he was included in their Prospect Handbook:

At his best, Montgomery still shows a 92-93 fastball that touches 95 mph, along with a plus changeup. But as he tried to implement a lower arm slot last season [2012], his fastball often dipped to 88-90. Montgomery has never gotten comfortable with his erratic curveball...

That last sentence is particularly important, because it’s Montgomery’s newly increased comfort with that curveball that inspires hope that he’ll make an effective three-pitch starter, rather than a mostly fastball/changeup reliever:

The curve hasn’t been just a get-me-over pitch, either – it’s been effective. Batters saw 366 curves from Montgomery this year, according to Baseball Savant, and were only able to muster seven hits, none more damaging than a double.

Speaking of changes Montgomery has made since his nadir as a prospect, the data indicates that his stuff has again reached the level scouts raved about when he was in his early twenties, and is now playing up due to improved command.

His fastball sat between 93 and 95 MPH all season, while his changeup was typically 83 to 85. Though research shows that there is no ideal difference between fastball and changeup velocity, scouts have long used 10 MPH as a good benchmark, and that’s precisely where Montgomery sits.

The changeup, in particular, has been a weapon. Montgomery threw 107 changeups in 2016, and these were the results, per Baseball Savant:

Pitches Hits AB AVG SLG 1B 2B 3B HR Whiffs Exit Velo.
107 3 22 .136 .273 2 0 0 1 31 82.8

That's not a gigantic sample, but batters could hardly touch the thing, let alone hit it hard. If the Cubs do indeed successfully replace Hammel with Montgomery, the changeup is going to be the reason why.

If you (fairly) have not been following Montgomery’s brief career all that closely, you may think of him as just a reliever. Getting the final out of the World Series will do that for your reputation. That may cause you to wonder how smoothly a transition to the rotation would go.

But starting, not relieving, is what Montgomery has primarily been asked to do, even in the majors. Montgomery has thrown 190 innings as a big leaguer, but only 64.1 of that came in relief. He started over 100 games in the minors. If he fails in the Cubs rotation, it won’t be because he’s uncomfortable in a starting role.

Of course, it is possible that Montgomery as a starter does not work out. While his command is better, he still maintains a walk rate higher than league average. Though he has a very nice ground ball rate, his HR/FB ratio is higher than you’d like. It’s unclear whether he can maintain his performance the second and third time through a major league order.

But let’s go back to those Steamer projections again, and see how Montgomery projects compared to Hammel:

Hammel 28 155.0 7.79 2.67 1.29 .299 70.3% 4.34 4.30 1.7
Montgomery 24 136.0 8.12 3.63 0.80 .301 72.9% 3.64 3.85 2.1

You can never been completely sure of how accurate any projection might be, particularly when you’re dealing with a player with as limited a track record as Montgomery, but considering the difference in age and salary between he and Hammel, this is probably what’s best for the defending world champs.

Moving Montgomery to the rotation creates a void elsewhere, of course. What lefties will the Cubs have in the pen, especially if they don’t re-sign Aroldis Chapman? Is Rob Zastryzny anything more than a LOOGY? But that’s an article for another day, and for today, it's enough to say that the Cubs are almost certainly right to prioritize rotation quality over bullpen quality.

I don’t want to get Cubs fans’ hopes up by pointing out that the last time Chicago acquired a former top prospect with command issues from a team that was involved in the Erik Bedard trade and put him in their rotation, he became a Cy Young winner. I wouldn’t do that to them.

What I will say is that replacing Hammel with Montgomery is, at the very least, worth a shot. There's no guarantee he's ultimately who the Cubs will choose as their fifth starter, after all. They could sign Rich Hill next month and render all of this moot. But he’s already proven to be a late-bloomer, and who knows, maybe there’s even more in there. With the guy at the end of your rotation, you can take those kinds of chances.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin, where he primarily bemoans the current state of Mizzou athletics.