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Mets spring training: Rafael Montero and Dillon Gee should compete for the fifth starter job

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Rafael Montero seems ready to compete at the major league level. The Mets should give him that opportunity.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

After the Mets announced that Zack Wheeler will likely miss the 2015 season with a torn UCL, manager Terry Collins all but named Dillon Gee the team’s fifth starter: "That’s why we have [Gee]," said Collins. "He’ll be the guy."

For most teams, the move would be a no-brainer. Gee has been a solid major league innings-eater, and profiles quite nicely as a back-of-the-rotation guy. On this Mets team, however, simply handing Gee a spot in the rotation doesn’t make much sense.

In Rafael Montero, the Mets have a major-league-ready starter whose profile mirrors Gee’s. Like Gee, Montero is a finesse pitcher who relies on pinpoint control rather than overpowering stuff. The only difference: Montero is younger, his stuff is better, and his ceiling is higher. Over these next two and a half weeks, the Mets should give Montero every opportunity to prove that he belongs in the team’s rotation to start the year.

It’s true that Montero did not thrive in his first year as a big leaguer. Last year, the righty had a 4.06 ERA (117 ERA-) and a 5.14 FIP (147 FIP-) in 10 appearances with the Mets. He also showed an uncharacteristic lack of command and vulnerability to the home run ball, walking 23 batters and surrendering eight home runs in just 44.1 innings pitched.

However, most of that damage occurred in just three brutal starts, which were among his first five in the majors. In those five starts, Montero had an ugly 6.12 ERA and 7.17 FIP in 25.0 innings of work.

After that, Montero seemed to find his groove. In his next and final five appearances, the righty had an impressive 1.40 ERA and 2.51 FIP in 19.1 innings. After allowing a staggering eight home runs in his first five games, Montero didn’t allow any in his next five. Moreover, from his first five appearances to his next five, Montero improved his K/9 rate from 7.56 to 9.78.

Montero's 2014 season splits
IP R ER K BB H HR ERA FIP
First five appearances 25.0 18 17 21 13 28 8 6.12 7.17
Last five appearances 19.1 3 3 21 10 16 0 1.40 2.51

In order for Montero to be an effective major league starter, that walk rate will have to come down even further. Remember, also, to consider the issue of small sample sizes when looking at those splits. Montero’s improvement was likely the result of his maturing as a major leaguer, but random fluctuations over a small sample size could also have been a factor.

What’s clear is that Montero showed a promising upside in 2014. The righty maintained a high strikeout rate while improving his run-prevention skills over the course of the season. And, though somewhat inconsistent, Montero showed flashes of brilliance when his stuff was on. Here’s what Montero did in four of his eight big league starts last year:

Montero's four best starts of 2014
Date Opponent IP R ER K BB H HR
05/25/14 AZ 6.0 1 1 10 3 2 1
08/17/14 CHC 7.1 1 1 6 2 5 0
09/10/14 COL 5.1 0 0 7 4 3 0
09/27/14 HOU 5.1 1 1 6 2 6 0

Granted, none of those teams were offensive juggernauts in 2014. Still, in half of his major league starts, Montero was quite good. The issue going forward will be his ability to stay consistent and improve his command of the zone. As a minor leaguer, Montero was famous for doing just that: in 434.1 minor league innings, Montero had an outstanding 2.69 ERA, while striking out 413 batters and walking just 102.

While Montero’s major league performance last year was seen as a bit of a let-down, keep in mind that Dillon Gee’s wasn’t much better. Gee’s 4.00 ERA (115 ERA-) was almost identical to Montero’s, and his 4.52 FIP (129 FIP-) was nothing to write home about, either. Gee’s trends are somewhat concerning as well. From 2012 to 2014, the righty saw his K/9 rate fall from 7.96 to 6.42 to 6.16, respectively; his HR/9 rate, meanwhile, rose from 0.98 to 1.09 to 1.18. The result was fairly staggering year-to-year FIP increases from 3.71 to 4.00 to 4.52.

Overall, here’s how Gee compared to Montero in 2014:

Gee vs. Montero, 2014
G IP ERA ERA- FIP FIP- K/9 BB/9 HR/9 fWAR
Dillon Gee 22 137.1 4.00 115 4.52 129 6.16 2.82 1.18 -0.1
Rafael Montero 10 44.1 4.06 117 5.14 147 8.53 4.67 1.62 -0.3

Although their numbers were similar in some ways, Gee was clearly the better pitcher. Going forward, however, ZiPS is much more bullish on Montero:

Gee vs. Montero: 2015 ZiPS projections
G IP ERA ERA- FIP FIP- K/9 BB/9 HR/9 zWAR
Dillon Gee 23 142.0 4.18 117 4.29 120 6.78 2.54 1.14 0.6
Rafael Montero 29 144.7 3.61 101 3.68 103 8.65 3.11 0.87 1.7

It’s understandable to think that Dillon Gee will be a better pitcher than Rafael Montero in the very short term; but even that isn’t a foregone conclusion. Based on Montero’s age, ability, minor league success, and even limited success in the majors last year, it’s quite possible that Montero is already the better pitcher. At the very least, the two should compete for the fifth starter job for the remainder of camp. If Gee wins that competition, he should start the season in the Mets’ rotation. But it seems strange, with a pitcher like Montero champing at the bit, that the Mets would simply hand a rotation spot to a pitcher who has never posted a league-average-or-better ERA in any of his four full major league seasons, and who has only once posted a league-average FIP.

The situation the Mets face now is not unlike the one they faced last spring. A year ago, the Mets rolled the dice and gave the fifth starter job to Jenrry Mejia over Daisuke Matsuzaka. While Mejia didn’t work out as a starter, the move signaled that the Mets were willing to bet on their young talent by giving Mejia the first bite at the apple. From an organizational standpoint, that seems like a wiser move than deferring to a mediocre veteran who probably won’t figure into the team’s long-term plans anyway.

At first, Mets GM Sandy Alderson seemed open to having Montero compete for the fifth starter job. However, after hearing Collins’s endorsement of Gee, Alderson publicly sided with his skipper: "I think Dillon is the next man up," Alderson said. "I think Terry’s indication was strong."

Again, it’s odd that the Mets would simply declare the open rotation spot Gee’s to lose. But, should they put Montero in the bullpen or in Triple-A to start the year, the Mets should eventually give him another extended look as a major league starter, because what he showed at times last year was exciting.