The Mets finally decided to call up one of their top pitching prospects before the June Super Two deadline, announcing earlier this week that they would call up Rafael Montero to take Jenrry Mejia's spot in the major league rotation. Montero has blitzed through the organization since signing in early 2011, and in 24 Triple-A starts in the not-so-friendly confines of the Pacific Coast League, has posted a 3.25 ERA across 130.1 innings, striking out 119 against 43 walks. With Mejia officially in the bullpen in the near-term, and not much upper level starting pitching depth left behind Montero, the 23-year-old righthander figures to be in the Mets rotation for the rest of the season. So what can we expect?
What he does well right now
Montero's calling card in the minors has been his outstanding control. Although his walk rate has ticked up this year in a small sample, every previous season in the minors, Montero was able to throw all three of his offerings for strikes. You wouldn't think so to watch him pitch, given that there is some effort in the delivery and he falls off to the first base side after every pitch, but Montero repeats incredibly well and somehow makes it all work. The walk rate has ballooned to over 10% this year, but even when he 'struggles' with his control, he is always around the zone.
Throw good strikes (at least with his fastball)
Montero is better at locating down-and-away to both sides of the plate than any Mets pitching prospect since Yusmeiro Petit. And unlike Petit, Montero features a fastball that sits a tick above average for a right-handed starter. Montero can also elevate the pitch when needed, and cut it a bit when he is trying to locate gloveside (inside to left-handed batters). It's not a special pitch in terms of velocity or movement. It sits 91-93, though he can reach back for more, and when he's working armside, it can be a bit flat (Montero conceals this by working from the extreme first-base side of the rubber), but his command is so good it makes the pitch an easy plus offering.
What he doesn't do so well right now
Show you a major league offspeed offering
Montero works off his fastball with a slider and change-up, and neither is going to make scouts perk up and take notice. The slider is his primary secondary offering and it has improved since my last live look at him in early 2013. However, Montero's command of the slider lags well behind his fastball. He has to change the shape of it when he wants to spot it for a strike, and then it tends to show itself early. He can get Triple-A hitters to swing through those, or at worst foul them off, but those are the kind of offerings MLB hitters drive. When Montero wants to use it as a chase pitch to put guys away, he has trouble starting it in the zone, making it easy to lay off. And overall the pitch tends to be sweepy with more tail than depth. The change-up is the better present-day secondary offering, but it's nothing special. Montero maintains his arm speed well on the pitch, and it has some armside hop to it (rather than fade), but he doesn't really turn it over much and has trouble getting it down. Better left-handed hitters should be able to work it the other way.
When I watched Montero in Binghamton, I was shocked at his ability to get called strikes deep in counts against Double-A hitters. He got more called strikes two and three based solely on fastball location than you would expect at that level. I didn't think that would work at higher levels, but then it doesn't usually work in the Eastern League either. It appears that it is finally starting to catch up to him in Las Vegas. The K-rate is still pretty good, though it has declined from Binghamton and St. Lucie, but he is seeing a lot more foul balls deeper in counts, (and thus working deeper counts) where he previously would have put guys away with fastballs on the black. Without a go-to offspeed offering that major league hitters have to respect, Montero may have even more trouble putting away guys with just fastball command.
Another thing to keep an eye on
Does he give you innings?
One of the reasons Montero was called up to replace Jenrry Mejia in the Mets rotation is that Mejia just wasn't holding his stuff deep into games and struggled to get through 6. Montero also doesn't have the same onerous innings limit as Mejia. The expectation is that Montero will be much more efficient than Mejia, but I don't know that will be the case. I certainly expect him to throw more strikes than Mejia, but he doesn't have the same ability to put away major league hitters. I could see some John Maineish starts in his future where he doesn't really walk a lot of guys, but still finds himself up over 100 pitches sometime in the sixth inning. He's probably going to be more of a pitch-to-contact guy at the major league level, at least until the breaking ball approves, but it's the quality of that contact that will determine how successful he is in 2014.
What to expect
Montero will probably draw some comparisons to Dillon Gee, based on his command/control profile, but I think Bartolo Colon is the better figure to look to in the Mets rotation. Like Colon, and unlike Gee, Montero is going to throw his fastball a lot. And like both Gee and Colon, Montero is a pretty extreme flyball pitcher. He's going to be reliant on the Mets outfield defense, which for once isn't a bad thing, to get him deep into games, as I don't see the repertoire for him to light up the K-counter. When it works, you get Colon's good seasons. When it doesn't, well just look at Colon this year. I don't expect Montero to get shelled (though I would expect a few starts where the longball hurts him), but I don't see a guy that is ready right now to come in and pitch to that mid-rotation projection. But if he can gives the Mets some length and pitches to around a 4.00 ERA, I think they will be happy with their swap.
For a more complete (read: longer) look at Montero's history and arsenal, check out Alex and my piece on Montero from last Spring.