I’m going to write at some moderate length about the Mets’ Sterling Award winners at each level of the farm system. In some cases the choice of player intersects with the team’s best prospect, or one of their best prospects, in others it diverges.
The series starts at the top of the farm, where Rafael Montero earned the AAA Las Vegas 51s Sterling Award.
Montero, who will turn 23, has nearly an extremely rapid rise through the Mets’ minor league system. He began 2011 in the Dominican Summer League and has advanced at least two levels in each of his three minor league seasons, including a four-level summer (DSL, GCL, APP, NYP) in 2011. His rise has been extremely brisk
His 2013 in Numbers
Statistically, therere are two things that matter to me in there. After running strikeout rates of 29% and 27% in advanced-A and AA, his strikeout rate declined to 21.5% in AAA. Meanwhile, his walk rate which was 2.8% in the SAL in 2012, and 3.8% in AA, climbed to a career-high 6.9% in AAA. Basically, he’s headed back to league average (~19.4% k rate and 9.1% walk rate in the PCL this year) in these two crucial markers. Two amazing statistical notes: he did not hit a single batter all year, and was charged with just one wild pitch. Those control metrics can get lost in a focus on walks, but the baserunners and extra bases they give an offense should not be ignored.
Montero is a three-pitch guy, fastball, slider and changeup. As a starter, he’s mostly 92-94 mph with his fastball with outstanding control and the ability to get to both sides of the plate. Note that in the Futures’ game over the summer, he averaged 95 mph for seven fastballs. That’s harder than I’ve ever seen him throw as a starter. Subtracting a mile or two for stamina and control takes him to his standard 93 ish range. It’s a little straight, but again, he can spot up with the pitch to make it play.
In the low minors, his second pitch was his changeup. He had good armspeed on it and just enough movement to miss bats. His slider has come along in the last few years from poor to a weapon in ball to a little below big league average when I saw it in spring training (and for two pitches in the futures game). It was short and flat and that more defined movement is progress from the loopier breaking balls of years’ past. He continued to improve the offering all year.
The Mets wanted to see Montero’s progress with his slider and changeup this year. Mets’ VP of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Paul dePodesta in April, ““His fastball is very advanced right now, but the secondary pitches need to continue to get better.”
If Montero was not dominant overall in AAA, he was in August, when he put up a 1.40 ERA and a 37/6 K/BB (6.2) ratio in 38.2 innings with a 25.8% strikeout rate and a 4% walk rate. He was big league ready when the Mets shut him down to manage the jump in his innings on a year-over-year basis.
In a world where Matt Harvey is not ready to go on Opening Day 2014, Montero really might have a chance to win a spot in the Mets’ starting rotation out of Spring Training behind Jon Niese, Zack Wheeler, Jenrry Mejia and Dillon Gee. He could be a league-average starter in the near term and more if his slider continues to progress past average to plus.
However, keeping Montero down in the minors for about a month will buy the Mets an extra year of control on his services by postponing the date he is eligible for free agency. The smart money is on the Mets signing an extra veteran or two, both to add depth for the duration of the year, and postpone Montero’s big league debut and service time clock in 2014.
Montero was a very strong choice for his award.
Other (Good) Choices:
Picking a single MVP in AAA usually going to be an daunting feat. This year, the Las Vegas 51s used 28 position players and 31 pitchers. That’s pretty standard in AAA. Montero made the third-most starts on the 51s, behind only Matt Fox (20 starts; 4.59 ERA) and Chris Schwinden (28 starts; 5.78 ERA).
Zack Wheeler made 13 starts for Las Vegas with a 3.93 ERA, nearly a full run higher than Montero’s, before his big league promotion. Given that Montero threw 20 more innings than Wheeler, and allowed exactly the same number of both earned and unearned runs, he was better. Wheeler’s reward in 2013 was his big league debut and the beginning of big league money.
Among pitchers, Montero was the clear choice.
Montero faced 363 batters in AAA this year. Only a four position players had that many plate appearances for the 51s: Eric Campbell, Wilmer Flores, Jamie Hoffman and Zach Lutz. Flores at .321/.357/.531 in 463 PA, would have been a deserving candidate too. Like Wheeler, his reward was big league time and big league money. Better to leave the minor league award to a deserving minor leaguer.