Rafael Montero easily turned in the top pitching performance by a Mets farmhand on Minor League Opening Night (6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K).
Pitching Coach Tom Signore, filling in for Frank Viola was impressed:
“That’s the way Rafael does business. He was amazing. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is always good. He’s going to make you put it in play or he’s going to strike you out.”
Signore thought that the four hits Montero allowed were solid offerings:
“He really didn’t [make mistakes with those pitches]. I’m looking at the spray chart right now and those were pitches that were down and hit on the ground. We’ll take our chances with balls hit on the ground, especially here in the thin air.” (Josh Jackson, MiLB.com)
Old friend Doug Greenwald, longtime Fresno Grizzlies broadcaster added, “command of the fast ball. Excellent control. Sets up hitters well using his slider. Gets ahead of hitters. Very poised. Made the pitches when it counted. Didn’t seem to overthrow.”
It’s one start. But it was a very nice start to the 2014 season.
One thing to keep in mind about Montero; he made 16 starts in AAA in 2013, and with his 2014 debut, he’s up to 17 starts and 94.2 innings in AAA. He is now comfortably in the range of AAA experience that the previous two Mets starting pitching prospects - Matt Harvey in 2012 and Zack Wheeler in 2013 – had when they were called to the big leagues. Compare the AAA tenure of the three hurlers.
At first, I was going to skip ERA because the three pitchers pitched in different run environments, but it’s still worthwhile enough, and Montero performs extremely well in the comparison. All of Harvey’s 20 starts were with Buffalo in the International League. Wheeler made 13 starts in Buffalo in 2012 and six with Las Vegas in 2013. Montero has done all of his work in the Pacific Coast League.
Montero has the best control of the group. He has been the best of the three hurlers at actually keeping runs off the board. He’s walked the fewest batters. And he’s worked the most efficiently, seeing the fewest batters per inning of the group.
Of course, Montero also trails Harvey and Wheeler in perhaps the most important rate category: strikeout rate. The other two have bigger fastballs and fan more batters. They have more pure stuff.
Montero is just about ready to be a Major League starter. While the Mets bullpen has been bad through the first three games of the 2014 season (a 10.61 ERA, second-worst in the Majors), there is absolutely no reason to move Montero to the pen. First of all, it’s three games. Rather, the nature of pitchers and pitcher injuries suggest that Mets will need another starter at some point in the not too distant future. At that point, Montero will have the AAA experience to warrant a big league look.
In baseball in 2014, with a team as budget-conscious as the Mets, it is impossible to discuss promoting a player from AAA to the big leagues without a nod to the finances. Players become free agents after six full seasons in the big leagues. If the Mets keep Montero in AAA for another week – past April 11, he cannot pick up a full year of service time in 2014 and the Mets would control his rights through 2020. If they call him up in May or June, they run the risk of his achieving Super Two arbitration status where he would have four years of arbitration eligibility instead of three. That could cost the team roughly zero – $15 million depending on Montero’s efficacy in the big leagues.
Montero is not coming to the big leagues in the next week. But anytime after tax day, when the Mets have a rotation need, Montero will be ready. The Mets could bring him up to help the bullpen, but if they do so, they must keep him stretched out so that he can return to starting when the need arises.
AAA: @ Las Vegas 51s 9, Fresno Grizzlies (SF) 2
- Rafael Montero turned in the pitching performance of the night in the Mets system: 6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 55 of 79 pitches for strikes (70%). According to one eye-witness, he was sitting at 93 and made the Grizzlies look “silly” at times.
- Meanwhile, have a day LF Kirk Nieuwenhuis. The 26-year-old was 4-for-4 with a homer, threw out a runner at the plate, and made a nice running catch near the stands.
- Vic Black is still having control issues. He issued two walks and committed a throwing error, but used a pair of strikeouts to escape the eighth inning without allowing a run.
- Bobby Abreu singled as a pinch-hitter in the 7th inning.
- Erik Goeddel worked out the bullpen for the first time as a professional (not counting a few piggy-back appearances with Savannah two years ago) and struck out one in a three-batter ninth.
AA: Akron RubberDucks (CLE) 7, @ Binghamton Mets 1
The B-Mets had four hits, while their pitchers issued 11 walks. That’s not a winning combination.
LHP Jack Leathersich pitched a very Leathery eighth inning in a 4-1 game: 3 strikeouts, 1 walk, no hits. In 29.1 innings in AA last year, he allowed almost as many walks (16) as hits (19) to go with his 55 strikeouts.
The minor league season begins tonight and it brings three of my Top 25 Mets prospects to the mound to make starts for their teams.
Each affiliate’s starter is listed in bold.
AAA: Rafael Montero
Wally Backman on Montero:
“He can spot both sides of the plate and keeps the ball down,” Backman said. “He doesn’t walk anybody and throws all his pitches for strikes.” (Las Vegas Review Journal)
This is the second straight year that Montero has made an Opening Day start after taking the ball for AA Binghamton last year to begin the season. If all goes well for Montero, my #3 Mets prospect, he will be in New York by mid-summer.
AA: Darin Gorski
This is the third go-round at AA for Gorski, who turned 26 last October.
Gorski on the Opening Day start:
“It’s exciting. You know, they’re putting the ball in your hand for the first game to go out there and set the tone for the rest of the season so I think it’s a big deal. I’m excited for the opportunity.” Lynn Worthy (Press & Sun Bulletin)
Worthy points out that Gorski joins a lineage of Binghamton Opening Day starters that includes:
’11: Josh Stinson
’12: Colin McHugh
’13: Rafael Montero
A+: Gabriel Ynoa
After a big 2013 with Savannah, Ynoa, my #13 prospect, will get the nod for Advanced-A St. Lucie at the tender age of 20.
A: Robert Gsellman
This is the second year that Gsellman has made an Opening Day start. He actually made the Opening Day start for Brooklyn last year on June 17. The funny part: that was already Gsellman’s eighth start of 2013. He made a pair of spot starts for St. Lucie and then five starts for Savannah, mostly in May. He was absolutely dominant in the New York Penn League on his way to my #25 ranked prospect in the system.
Gnats pitching coach Marc Valdes explained that while Gsellman was the most worthy choice to go on Opening Night for the Gnats, logistical issues, like throwing schedules matter too at this level: “The rotation is not really set up as a 1-2-3-4-5-6 guys. It was his time to throw. In a way, he did deserve it the way he was throwing in spring training and leading up from the end of last year. We felt he’s a guy, who had 6-7 days; he’s ready to pitch….. He is a good guy to go out there game one, especially with his command of his pitches. I think, right now, he gives us the best chance to win game one.”
Gsellman, had a nice spring in Port St. Lucie. Valdes reports that he impressed the AAA staff in an intra-squad game, “One example, he pitched against the AAA team, went five innings – no problem. Wally Backman said he held his composure – he gave up a couple hits, maybe a home run – just pretty much breezed through the five innings, moving his pitches in and out and changing speeds.”
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 185
Acquired: NDFA 1/20/11
Born: 10/17/90 (Higuerito, Banico, DR)
2013 Rank: #9 (2012: #38) | Stats
Why Ranked Here: In blowing through the minors, from the Dominican Summer League to AAA in the last three years, Montero looks poised to contribute in 2014 as a mid- to backend rotation piece.
Montero succeeds first and foremost because he has a slightly above average fastball that plays up thanks to pinpoint command. He can hit both corners of the plate to both left and righthanders. The called-strike three at the knees on the black might well be his signature weapon. Montero is mostly 92-94 with his heat, although he can reach back for more, as he did in the XM Futures game in which he showed 95 mph, while sitting 94.
I like his changeup as his second pitch. He throws it mostly to left-handers and it has good arm speed with just enough sink.
His slider looked like it had more depth in the spring of 2014, than it did in spring training 2013. He’s played around with different formulations on his breaking ball in 2012 and 2013, but 2014 was the best it’s looked – as it approaches MLB average.
Montero is not the biggest or most physically imposing prospect, but he repeats his delivery exquisitely well and has been durable in professional baseball. In consecutive seasons, he’s made 17, 20 and then 27 appearances while moving from 71 innings to 122 to 155 last year.
If Montero becomes a star, he will be succeeding against type: there just are not very many successful right-handed starting pitchers in the big leagues at 6’ and shorter. Oh, sure, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux, two Hall of Famers, are the patron saints of six-foot righties. I’ll do a similar study to the one I did for Dominic Smith. Since 1984, in the last 30 years, there have been 118 pitcher seasons in the Baseball Reference play index of 3 WAR or greater by a starting, right-handed pitcher at 6’0” or shorter. Sixty-seven of these 3+ WAR seasons, or 57% of our sample, have been compiled by nine separate pitchers.
This is the list of elite 6’0” righthanders in the last 30 years and their number of 3+ WAR seasons.
1. Greg Maddux – 17
2. Pedro Martinez – 11
3. Bartolo Colon – 8
4. Roy Oswalt – 8
5. Dave Stieb – 5
6. Mike Boddicker – 5
7. Juan Guzman – 5
8. Tim Lincecum – 4
9. Anibal Sanchez – 4
These nine pitchers account for the top 17 and 38 of the top 42 seasons (!) seasons in our sample. Only Kevin Tapani (6.8 – 1991), Johnny Cueto (5.9 – 2012), Francisco Cordova (5.5 – 1998) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (5.3 – 2008) join our nasty nine as 6’0” righthanders with seasons with better than five WAR in last thirty years. Think about that for a second. Phrased another way, there are only 13 guys who stand six foot even, who throw with their right hand who accounted for at least five WAR in a season in a 30 year span.
There are 71 pitcher-seasons at 4 WAR or better in the last thirty years, or 2.3 per year.
2013: Montero was sharp in his first eight starts in AA – 3.47 ERA, 54 K/6 BB in 46.2 IP – to earn AAA spot start on May 21 against Iowa.
Returned to AA, he allowed roughly nothing over his next three starts: 20 innings, 11 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 18 K/4 BB and an opponents’ line of .155/.200/.155 in 75 plate appearances. He was promoted to AAA for good on June 15 and for his final 15 appearances ran a 3.07 ERA over 82 innings with 73 K/24 BB while opponents hit .259/.310/.364 against him in 340 plate appearances.
Dr. Pangloss Says: A solid mid-rotation starter
Debbie Downer Says: Big league time, but not a big contributor
Projected 2014 Start: AAA Las Vegas
MLB Arrival: June 2014
This is a fun time of Spring Training, when top prospects get to throw in big league games before teams tighten up their rosters to more closely reflect their regular season 25-man personnel.
Rafael Montero: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
Montero was 91-93 in his two innings of work. He used his changeup at 87-88, and one at 84, early in counts at 1-0, 0-1 and 1-1 to set up his fastball.
He threw a solid changeup at 88 on a 0-1 count to Danny Espinosa and then tied him up with a 92 mph fastball to induce a weak groundout. He missed with the changeup on 0-1 to Ryan Zimmerman and the came back with a slider at 81 that Zimmerman fouled off before ringing him up with a 91 fastball on the black at the knees. On 1-0, he got a swing and a miss from Adam Laroche at a changeup at, froze him with a second changeup to get to 1-2 and then finished him with a fastball looking at about 91. Ian Desmond fouled off a first-pitch changeup at 88 mph.
Montero threw a first pitch slider to Wilson Ramos. He did not throw many sliders but it looked like it had better depth than ht one he was using early in 2013.
Jacob deGrom: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K
Fastball, fastball and fastball. deGrom sat at 92-93 mph and thew one changeup down at 88 mph. He blew away Matt Moore on a fastball up at 93. After fastballs early in the count, he induced a swing and a miss from Scott Hairston on a slider down at 85mph.
deGrom admitted that facing a big league lineup gave him butterflies, “I was nervous. I had some butterflies, but I feel like everybody does when they get out there to pitch.” (DiComo, MLB.com)
Travis d’Arnaud on deGrom: “He threw his fastball really well…He fell behind to one guy 3-0 and came right back at him. He’s so tall and long, his release point is so much closer it’s hard for hitters to pick up.” (Kristie Ackert, NY Daily News)
Erik Goeddel: 1 IP, 2 H , 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
Adam Kolarek: 1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K
Jeff Walters: 1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
From Andy Martino in the Daily News, “The Mets like righty relief prospect Jeff Walters, but were a bit confused and disappointed when he did not throw one of his best pitches, the slider, in his Grapefruit League debut Friday.”
Cory Mazzoni: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
Mazzoni, who walked the first two guys he faced, was throwing 92-94. He missed up with what I think was his first split/changeup and then later in his inning found the bottom half of the zone with the pitch. He also threw a few sliders at 85-87.
Vic Black: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K
94-96 mph? Yes, please.
He worked heavily off his fastball, but missed down with a good-looking curve at 83 mph. Juan Diaz punched a curve at 79 back up the middle for an RBI single on the first pitch of his atbat.
Danny Muno bobbled a ball at second base that extended the inning and helped lead to a run.
Steven Matz: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
Matz fell behind Yadier Molina, his first batter 3-0, before recovering to strike him out with high heat. Matz was throwing 95-97 mph, or 94-95 depending on the gun, threw a few nice curveballs and a changeup. At the end of the 2013 season, his changeup was ahead of his curve among his non-fastball offerings. His goals this year include tightening up his fastball location and curveball development. The curve will be important, not so much for getting outs in the Florida State League, where he should start 2014, but for levels above and beyond.
Pitching Coach Dan Warthen on Matz: “I love the kid’s arm…He’s getting the ball down better each and every time. He threw a couple of great curveballs and a nice changeup today. It’s a very positive outing for Steven.” (Marc Carig, Newsday)
Adam Rubin at ESPNNY quotes a scout in attendance, “He has a good arm to work with. He needs to command the strike zone with the fastball down better. I do like him once he does command better.”
Logan Verrett: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
Verrett was up in the zone, and gave up multiple pieces of solid contact.
Jack Leathersich: 0.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 0 K
- STEP Camp, for the Mets top prospect began over the weekend. The full roster is here. In the last two years, every starter on a full-season team on Opening Day attended either MLB camp or STEP Camp.
- At ESPNNY, Adam Rubin reports that Erik Goeddel will be transitioning to a bullpen role. This is not a surprise. In fact, when I ranked him as the Mets’ 33rd-best prospect, I had already factored in a move to the bullpen into his valuation.
- At Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan did a great piece about Juan Lagares and how much outfield defense shifts in value year-over-year. He found range rankings are more stable than arm ratings, where Juan Lagares excelled last season.
Articles about Pitching Prospects
The Mets beat writers have figured out that Frank Viola 1. knows all of the minor league pitchers and 2. gives a great quote.
Viola on Rafael Montero
“I don’t know if you’ll ever have a perfect delivery but that’s as close as you’re going to see…”
Mike Vorkunov in The Star-Ledger
On Jeff Walters
“He went from 89 to 91 [mph], all the way up to 97 sometimes,’’ Viola said. “Sometimes it’s just a mental thing. In the bullpen you just react and go. He thrives on the moment and he’s learning how to win.
Kevin Kiernan in the NY Post. There’s other good stuff on Walters, a three-sport athlete in high school who called Bronson Arroyo his “hair idol” in there too.
On Jack Leathersich
“In Triple-A he finally couldn’t get hitters out just by throwing up in the strike zone, and now he has to adjust. He has to get a little mentally tougher and attack the strike zone.
John Harper in the NY Daily News, who compared Leathersich to Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams.
The best quote in Harper’s article comes from Leathersich’s buddy, Zack Wheeler, “Hitters tell me he throws an invisi-ball. For some reason, they just don’t see it very well.”
John Delcos submits his bid for “Worst Spring Training Article of the Year.”
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.
Baseball America has named Rafael Montero the #1 prospect on this week’s prospect Hot Sheet.
Excerpts from their comment:
The Mets signed him in January 2011 when he was 20—an age that makes him practically ancient in the world of international scouting—but he’s skyrocketed from the Dominican Summer League to Triple-A in just two seasons thanks to his impressive command of a solid arsenal. Little has fazed Montero on that journey, including the hitter-friendly conditions of Las Vegas. … otherwise he overmatched hitters during his two home starts in Las Vegas.
Montero sits in the low 90s and can get up to the mid-90s when he needs it, but it’s the late life and the command of his fastball that makes him so effective. He lacks a wipeout offering among his secondary pitches, so scouts aren’t projecting Montero as a frontline starter, but the stuff and command are there to profile as a steady mid-rotation arm.
C Travis d’Arnaud also shows up in “In the Team Photo.”
And from the chat, a little bit about Wilmer (TRAID/NO TRAID) Flores….
Sam (New York): Thoughts on Wilmer Flores debut? Do the Mets find a place for him next season?
Ben Badler: I like him and I’d like to see him get a chance to play everyday in the big leagues next year, I just don’t know where you can put him if you’re the Mets. Best-case scenario, he performs well the rest of the season and becomes a very attractive, major league-ready trade chip.
AAA: @ Las Vegas 51s 3, New Orleans Zephyrs (MIA) 2
Hey, now, Rafael Montero: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K. The eight strikeouts for Montero were one off a AAA season-high set in his last start. After an ordinary first 10 starts in AAA, Montero’s August has been spectacular: 3 GS, 0.82 ERA, 22 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 HR, 2 BB, 21 K. He’s striking out batters at a rate of 27.6% in his last three starts and walking them at a 2.6% rate. After 122 innings a year ago, Montero has thrown 138 this year, so he likely only has another 15-20 to play with before the Mets will shut him down for the year. That, plus the fact that the 22-year old is not on the Mets’ 40-man roster, and will not need to be added for Rule 5 protection for two more years, means he will not get a chance to make his big league debut until next year. Instead, bet on 2014 for Montero.
C Travis d’Arnaud (1-for-3, BB, RBI) is hitting .304/.487/.554 with 21 walks against 12 strikeouts in 19 games in AAA. This is a guy who drew 19 walks in 67 games in Las Vegas when they were a Blue Jays affiliate in 2012. He has addressed the major flaw in his on-field game: his patience at the plate.
RF Kirk Nieuwenhuis had a solid night at the top of the order, going 2-for-4 with a double, a walk and two strikeouts. In 55 games in AAA, the 26-year-old has hit .243/.342/.471 with 30 walks and 59 strikeouts. Nieuwenhuis is playing right while Matt den Dekker patrols center.
AA: Binghamton Mets 9, @ Reading Fightin’ Phils 3
The Binghamton Mets are now a franchise-best 30 games over .500. Which is nice. The B-Mets’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth is just one. Which is also nice.
CF Alonzo Harris had a nice night at the bottom of the Binghamton order, going 3-for-4 with a double. Despite leadoff man speed, the 24-year-old is the owner of a .225/.292/.310 line in 88 games.
SNY.tv was at the Futures Game at Citi Field on Sunday, and spent the day following Noah Syndergaard, Brandon Nimmo, and Rafael Montero. Nimmo, Syndergaard, B-Mets Manager Pedro Lopez, and Team USA Manager Mookie Wilson discuss the their development, and talk about what they need to do in order to get to the big leagues.