I got my first look at Rafael Montero at the end of the 2011 season. I was in Brooklyn hoping to sneak a peak at Phillip Evans, who had been called up from Kingsport to get a few extra days of at-bats following the end of the Appalachian League's season. Carlos Vazquez started for Brooklyn. After being touched up early, Rich Donnelly made the bullpen call to bring in a little right-hander I'd never heard of.
Rafael Montero is for the Cyclones: Scouting report—He throws very hard.— Jeffrey Paternostro (@jeffpaternostro) September 4, 2011
Montero's Fastball/Curve combo is not bad at all.— Jeffrey Paternostro (@jeffpaternostro) September 4, 2011
Command is so-so, but there is some nice stuff to work with there.— Jeffrey Paternostro (@jeffpaternostro) September 4, 2011
I thought I'd found a nice little sleeper. Montero had started the year in the Dominican Summer League! I snuck him into my Top 30 prospect list for 2012. I was feeling pretty smug... until Jonathan Mayo put Montero at #11 on his Mets prospect list. At the time, I thought that was agressive. But a year after Mayo's list came out, I tweeted this:
Think I'm going to watch Montero's start late tonight, light some candles, put on some XX.— Jeffrey Paternostro (@jeffpaternostro) April 5, 2013
Montero had a breakout season in 2012 and was named Sterling Organization Pitcher of the Year. He turned even more heads this year during spring training. David Wright even sang the Dominican righthander's praises on a February SNY broadcast. And yesterday, after a very strong six weeks in Binghamton, the Mets announced that Montero would be promoted to Las Vegas for a spot start. Given this year's performance from the back of the Mets rotation (aka anyone not named Matt Harvey) Montero could be knocking on MLB's door by the second half of the year. But what exactly do the Mets have here? Let's take a deeper look at Montero's background.
Background and Minor League Performance
Normally I wouldn't include 2013 stats, but they help explain why Terry Collins recently said he might consider skipping Montero directly to the majors...
Montero signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in January 2011—immediately marking him as an unusual prospect. Most Dominican players sign at 16 or 17, as soon as they become eligible. Montero didn't even start playing organized ball until he was 17. He was one of the first player development moves of the Sandy Alderson regime, and he quickly began paying dividends. The Mets assigned him to the Dominican Summer League (DSL), where he struck out 20 and walked, uh, zero batters in 18 innings. From there he went briefly to the Gulf Coast League and Kingsport, before finishing his first professional season with the aforementioned appearance in Brooklyn. Montero was showing excellent control and the ability to miss bats, but he was old for his level. Montero checked in at #44 on the 2012 Amazin' Avenue Preseason Prospect list and Rob Castellano had this to say about him:
"Like Mateo, the 21-year-old Rafael Montero signed a little late to pro ball but he certainly made up for lost time. Montero used a pinpoint low-90s heater to carve up DSL hitters early in the year (see 0 walks versus 20 strikeouts) and, for whatever reason, he was promoted forward while Mateo was not. Montero went on to post more gaudy totals—including a combined .208 opp. average—as he rocketed up four levels, right to the Cyclones' pen during the heart of a playoff run. Pretty incredible, even if you realize that this was all during his pro debut. His combination of stuff and command are very impressive. I'd LOVE to see what he could do alongside Mateo in the Gnats rotation in 2012."
And here's what I wrote about him prior to the 2012 season:
"Sleeper alert! Montero kind of burst on the scene out of nowhere this year, dominating the Dominican Summer League as a 20 year old. Yawn. He did the same in the complex and short season leagues. Yawn again, right? But here’s the thing: he has an explosive arm. The fastball dials up into the mid-nineties and it is a remarkably easy velocity coming from his smallish frame. The breaking pitch needs some refinement, but certainly looks like it could be a good one. I probably have Montero higher than most, but I really think he’s only a tick or so behind the Kingsport 3 all in all. Now, he is less likely to stay a starter, just going off his build, but all four guys are far enough away that they are basically lottery tickets anyway."
Montero skipped ahead to full-season ball in 2012, starting in the Savannah Sand Gnats rotation. He saw his strikeout rate ebb against more advanced hitters, but continued to show outstanding control. He earned a mid-season promotion to St. Lucie, where his performance improved across the board. While pitching at a more advanced level, his strikeout rate jumped from merely average to outstanding. In the Florida State League, despite being on a pitch count, he worked deep into games due to his efficiency and stinginess when it came to baserunners. That August, he had to be shutdown early after reaching his innings limit for the year. But he still finished the season with two oustanding starts: a 14 strikeout outing against Clearwater followed by a no-hit bid against Palm Beach.
Montero cracked our (and every other) top 10 prospect list coming into this season, and he has more than lived up to the preseason hype. He is currently third in the Eastern League in BB%, fifth in K%, and second in FIP. He's also one of the youngest among league-leading pitchers—going from old for his level in 2011 to young for his level in 2013. All that said, you can't just scout the stat line, so let's take a look at how Montero is getting it done in Double-A.
Montero's bread and butter is his above-average fastball. When I saw him at the beginning of April, he was throwing it almost seventy percent of the time, sitting 91-93 with the four-seam fastball (touched 94) and 89-91 with the two-seamer. His pitch control is fantastic. He threw his fastball for strikes seventy-two percent of the time and repeatedly got first-pitch strikes with it. His command is also good. He can change eye levels with it and throw strikes to all four quadrants of the strike zone—though he shows a preference for working away from hitters. The unusual thing about Montero's fastball is that it not only gets first-pitch strikes, but it gets called strikes two and three as well. In the start I saw, Montero only generated four swinging strikes with it, and half his strikeouts were of the backwards variety. It's a good pitch. The velocity is a tick above-average, the command and control probably makes it play up to plus overall. It's just hard to see how this works in the major league level. MLB hitters will put some of those called strike twos in play. And they'll put most of those called strike threes in play.
As you'll see when we talk more about his mechanics below, Montero is not a deception guy. That is both good and bad. Deception is much harder to project at the major league level (see Petit, Yusmeiro), but if he had a particularly deceptive arm action, I would understand how he was fooling Eastern League hitters. So something else is going on here, which makes it particularly difficult for me to project Montero's fastball at higher levels. I will note that in Montero's worst start of the season, May 1 against Erie, it seemed that the Seawolves were more agressive early in the count and managed to get their hits by sitting on those strike one and strike two fastballs. If Montero can't keep better hitters from sitting on his fastball early in the count, major league hitters will be able to take it the other way with authority, even if he's hitting the outside black at 92. His fastball simply isn't a strong enough pitch on its own—both in terms of velocity and movement—for him to be able to throw it seventy percent of the time against major league bats.
In 2012, Montero's strikeout rate jumped almost 10% between Savannah and St. Lucie. He showed solid gains in his groundball rate in the Florida State League, which makes one think that perhaps Montero was making hay with his slider (and I heard second and thirdhand reports suggesting just that). Montero's primary breaking ball in Brooklyn looked live a curve to me, and Toby Hyde referred to his slider as a "non-factor" at the beginning of last season. Recently, the Mets have put a strong emphasis on teaching the slider in the lower levels of the minors, so a high baseball IQ pitcher like Montero might take to it quickly. Unfortunately, what I saw in Binghamton was closer to the "decent weapon in A-ball" pitch that Toby saw by the end of Montero's Savannah stay. It was a low-80s, swepy offering that he had trouble spotting low in the zone. It lacked depth in general, and he threw a fair amount that just sat and spun. He escaped with some foul balls on the bad ones, but the home run he gave up to Brad Glenn was off a 78 mph spinner up in the zone, and it was a no-doubter off the bat. He threw one nice one the entire afternoon, the last one of his start. The batter managed to hold up on it, but it finally showed late two-plane break.
Overall, Montero had issues throwing the slider for strikes and didn't miss bats. There's a potentially average pitch in there, but it's certainly not there yet. Montero's slider was going to be the focus of my theoretical look tonight, as a pair of eyes I trust saw him with a good one last year. But as a prospect guy you are always at the mercy of spot starts, scheduled days off, and bad weather. I can only report what I saw, and the slider is below average right now. New Hampshire hitters could barrel the hangers and ignore it otherwise.
The cambio? Now that was a bit better. The Fisher Cats used a very right-handed heavy line-up, so Montero didn't throw it all that much. The change could get a bit firm at times, but overall looked better than the slider. It didn't have the fade you normally associate with a change—more a 'hop' away, if that makes sense. Velocity differential was there too, as the good ones were 81-84 on the gun. I would like to see him turn it over a little more and get some depth to the pitch. Otherwise I worry major league lefties will just serve it into left field. As it was, Montero didn't miss any bats with the change either, but he already has a feel for the pitch and maintains his armspeed well. I would have liked a second look at the change, but thems the breaks. Like the slider, it's a potentially average pitch, but it's the more polished present-day offering.
I had our resident Rule 4 draft guru, Alex Nelson, take a look at Montero's mechanics. Here's what he told me:
"First thought: Montero's delivery looks substantially cleaner to me than what I've seen from him in the past. He's doing a much better job of driving towards the plate--even last year he had a tendency to cut himself off by not striding far enough off the mound. The footage suggests he's improved in this regard, though I would like to see him start his momentum toward the plate sooner than he currently does. Right now he is still a little too "drop and drive." I'm curious if his velocity increased or if his command looked off; both should improve in the long run but there may be growing pains.
Secondly, much like Hansel Robles, he had follow-through issues last year. He often forced his body to decelerate before his delivery had ended, which could affect the long-term health of his shoulder. Now he follows through completely, although there is still a bit of an arm jerk at the end, something many pitchers never eliminate. The improvement is definitely related to his increasing his stride--following through just becomes more natural as your momentum brings your body forward at greater velocities.
The arm action--and the angle isn't ideal to get a great look at it, so I may be off here--looks similar to what I've seen in the past. He turns the ball over quickly, but there's still some length as he brings the ball down low and way behind his back during load before launching his arm forward. It just slows his arm down a little too much. I probably wouldn't mess with it though unless health became a concern.
There are other quibbles. He may squeeze a little more velocity out with better hip and torso rotation. I'm a little worried that some guys might pick up on the ball too easily. You're always going to worry about the short, slight build. But provided he continues to pitch well for Bingo, I feel much better about his prospects of becoming an average major league starter (or possibly better) than I did last summer."
I also asked Alex if he had any concerns about Montero falling off to the first-base side of the mound after every pitch:
"I'm not too worried about it. One: control and command aren't issues for Montero. Two: most of the lateral movement comes after release. During delivery his body is still pretty direct toward home plate. It's not something I typically get worked up about, and a lot of fine pitchers do the same thing. I've even argued that there might even be some health benefits, as it provides additional distance for the arm to decelerate, as you allude to.
Although the real reason for the falling off might be that he's getting better torso rotation than I give him credit for. I've looked at the video a few more times and I'll recant that bit. He seems to wind his torso back and then over during delivery fairly well. Better timing overall might help him out, and that could improve over time."
I bemoaned during a recent edition of Amazin' Avenue Audio that Montero is a very difficult pitcher to project going forward. Prospect guys often speak of "The Double-A Test" in which a pitching prospect who succeeds primarily on fastball command has to prove that his stuff will work against the more advanced hitters in Double-A. Well, so far Montero is passing that test with flying colors. I just get a bit nervy around pitchers whose number one strength is fastball command. Fastball command is great. Fastball command is life. Fastball command allows you to set up all those other things that major league pitchers need to do, but you have to be able to do those other things.
I don't see how Montero gets the same amount of called strikes two and three with his fastball at the highest level. And the secondary stuff as currently comprised is not going to miss major league bats. I also have concerns about his long-term durability. His is not a frame that was built to go 200 innings season after season. Obviously there are always outliers, and Montero may very well make his game work over the long haul at higher levels. I just feel uncomfortable placing a large wager on it.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Montero is a major-league-caliber arm and I'm not convinced that he can't make it work as a starter at higher levels. However, he is a riskier prospect than you might expect, given his level of dominance so far in the upper minors. He needs to improve his slider and his changeup to be able to go through a major league lineup multiple times and needs to prove that his body will hold up under a 180-200 inning workload. If those things happen, he could slot in nicely as a #3 or #4 starter in the Mets rotation as soon as early 2014. His bullpen future is less clear to me. Rob compared him to Tom Gordon during our podcast discussion, and while I could see Montero following Gordon's career path, I don't know that this stuff 'plays up' all that much with a pen move. He will have much more value as a major league starter, above even the usual starter versus reliever value proposition.
I'm not much for comps in general, but Montero is a particularly difficult pitcher to comp. Most command and control guys don't have Montero's velocity. I mentioned Yusmeiro Petit earlier. He's the prototypical command and control prospect to me and, like Montero, one that dominated even Double-A with plus-plus fastball command. That comp doesn't work for me though because Petit threw his fastball around 5 mph slower than Montero and had a deception-heavy delivery. Tony Cingrani of the Reds is a fastball-heavy guy (even more than Montero, a crazy 83 percent of his pitches this year are fastballs), who throws a lot of strikes with it. He's more in Montero's velocity range, but is left-handed and again, a deception-heavy arm. There's just not a short right-handed starter in the bigs with Montero's profile. Doesn't mean he won't make it, but it's another risk factor to consider.
Montero will have to prove his game works at every level—the breaking ball needs to do more than flash average, and he'll have to continue to hold his stuff late into starts and late into seasons. But while Montero may confuse me, don't you be confused. He's a dude (in prospect speak, that's like a guy, but better). And I wouldn't be surprised if this spot start turns into a more extended stay in Vegas for the 22-year-old. There's a whole litany of things working against him as a pitching prospect, but I think he'll figure it out. He's a hard worker with a bedrock foundation to a major league career in his fastball command. He's been durable so far and I think he'll be durable in the future. Montero's not a sure thing, and he's probably not an All-Star, but developing a mid-rotation arm from a 20-year-old signed for $150,000 out of the Dominican? Well, I hope that area guy got a raise.
Projection: Average major league starter (#3/#4)
Risk Factor: High