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The precarious case of Rafael Montero

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Despite his talent, Rafael Montero could be crowded out of a talented Mets rotation.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Rafael Montero is the prospect New York Mets fans throw into hypothetical trades when they don’t want to part ways with Noah Syndergaard or Steven Matz. He is the top prospect with the least "wow" factor and after an unimpressive debut with the Mets, the 24-year-old finds himself in what could easily become a precarious situation.

Without the dominant skill set or personality of Matt Harvey, the hype or lightning fastball of Zack Wheeler, or the rapid and immediate rise of Jacob deGrom, Montero is in many ways already on shaky ground.

Entering the 2015 season, Montero finds himself among a young and impressive group of Mets starting pitchers—three of which (Harvey, deGrom, and Wheeler) have already made their mark in the major leagues, while Syndergaard and Matz have lit up radar guns and opposing hitters in the minor leagues. With all of this talent, it is hard to find a clear place for Montero in the big league rotation this season or in the seasons to come.

There are a couple of ways to look at this from the Mets' management’s perspective. The team's talent and depth give them flexibility in the face of potential injuries, as well as valuable pieces to potentially trade away. However, a pitcher with Montero’s talent, potential, and minor league track record can quickly get lost when stuck as a long man or in the minor leagues. The Mets need to prevent Montero from going from an up-and-coming prospect to a player with wasted talent and depreciating value.

Montero put together a strong 2013 campaign in which, between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Las Vegas, he posted a 2.78 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9. Thanks to that success in 2013, he was ranked as the Mets' third-best prospect before the 2014 season on Amazin’ Avenue, Minor League Ball, Baseball America, and MLB.com. Despite the obvious flaws with prospect rankings, such a strong and consistent ranking spoke to how highly people in the industry felt about Montero at the time.

In 2014, Montero split time between the minors and the majors. In 44 innings with the Mets, he posted below-average numbers, including a 4.06 ERA, a 1.51 WHIP, 4.7 BB/9, and a 5.14 FIP. Most concerning about his numbers last season was his loss of command. In addition to his high walk rate in the majors, he posted a 3.7 BB/9 in 86 minor league innings, compared to just 1.6, 1.4, and 2.0 BB/9 from 2011 to 2013, respectively.

Fast-forward to now, and there are already signs that Montero’s value has dropped. He has fallen to sixth on the Amazin’ Avenue and Minor League Ball lists, eighth on Baseball America’s list, and though MLB.com has not yet released its 2015 list, if its final 2014 season ranking is any indicator, Montero will be right around the sixth spot for them as well.

Montero's perceived value is already in decline and there is a very slim chance he breaks spring training in the major league starting rotation; it is more likely he starts the season in the Mets’ bullpen or back in Triple-A.

Due to Montero's current circumstance, it is not too difficult to see him fit the narrative of a pitching prospect who excelled in the minor leagues but didn’t succeed right away when given a shot in the majors, and then bounced around as a bullpen piece and a spot starter with varying success. Perhaps this is the work of an overactive and overly pessimistic imagination; but is it really so inconceivable?

While one could reasonably argue that Montero is not destined to be a successful starter in the majors—as some scouts have recently told MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo—most observers over the past year have touted Montero as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Regardless of his eventual landing spot, it is important for the Mets to find out if Montero has value as a big league starter.

While a "problem" like this often falls into the "good problem to have" bucket, it will be interesting to see what general manager Sandy Alderson and the rest of the front office decides is the next step for Montero. He is a valuable asset, and how the team manages him is especially important under a constrained budget, as there's even more pressure for the team to get the most value out of every player.