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.
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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.