Last week in this space, I looked at the difference between Robert Gsellman as a prospect and as a major league pitcher. Gsellman’s improvements in the upper-minors and at the MLB level are fairly typical of what the Mets have imbued on a number of pitching prospects over the past few years, leading to outcomes much better than expected. I’ll be tackling those positive outcomes on a wider basis soon, but before I look at all the success stories, I want to look at an absolute developmental failure, a recent prospect botch that appears to have come to its ignonimous conclusion on Monday night. Let’s talk about Rafael Montero.
The Mets signed Montero out of the Dominican Republic as a 20-year-old in 2011 for a reported $80,000. That’s an unusually old age to sign for a non-Cuban Latin American prospect, but the Mets have focused on the “overaged” market specifically in an attempt to get bargains, and he reached Brooklyn just a few months after signing. As early as spring 2012, Montero was touted by then-Mets player development kingpin Paul DePodesta as a pitcher to watch, and he shot through the entire system to reach Triple-A Las Vegas by mid-2013. It’s not easy to find a Montero scouting report from back in 2011, but luckily our own Jeffrey Paternostro saw him in Brooklyn and wrote about it as part of a Met prospect list on his blog, and it all still exists. Montero was throwing up into the mid-90s with a garbage breaking ball (at the time it was a curve) and intermittent command. Jeffrey put a back-end starter or reliever tag on him, with the possibility of a flame-out. That … pretty much sounds like the dude he became, right?
Well, a lot happened between Brooklyn and Las Vegas. By the end of 2013, Montero’s fastball command jumped to plus, he’d added a potential average change and slider, and he was the best pitching prospect Jeffrey had seen in the system that year, a potential third starter. That same offseason, BP would rank his command as among the best of any prospect in baseball, put him fourth on the Mets team list (Michael Fulmer and Jacob deGrom were both listed amongst the other notables who didn’t make the list), and listed him amongst players just off the global top 101 (others to receive that distinction include Mookie Betts and J.P. Crawford). Jason Parks graded him with a 60 fastball, 50+ change, and 50 slider. He was a real dude.
Montero was called up with deGrom in May 2014. Initially, Montero was ticketed for a longer-term starting assignment and deGrom was bullpen filler, but deGrom was forced into taking the ball in the rotation a few times and two and half seasons later has yet to give it back. Montero would get four turns in the rotation, putting up a 5.40 ERA and uncharacteristically walking 11 in 20 innings. (Well, we all thought it was uncharacteristic at the time, at least.) He would suffer a strained oblique shortly after his return to Triple-A. Upon his major-league return in August he pitched well, throwing up a 2.96 ERA and striking out over a batter per inning, but he was still walking far too many—12 in 24.3 innings.
At the end of 2014, it was not readily apparent there was anything specific wrong with Montero, just the usual hiccups of pitching prospectdom. I would suggest that by the time April 2015 concluded, it was crystal clear. Montero, through a combination of injuries to pitchers ahead of him and a superficial spring, pitched his way onto the major league roster. Once again, he couldn’t–or wouldn’t–throw strikes consistently with his fastball, and his offspeed stuff still wasn’t good enough to compensate for that. By month’s end, he had been optioned to Triple-A, but then forced the Mets to rescind the option and place him on the MLB disabled list with shoulder fatigue. He’d remain on the disabled list for the rest of the season, with two short rehab stints, no major-league return, and manager Terry Collins publicly challenged whether he was actually hurt at all.
Breaking camp in 2016, the Mets tried again, this time as a short reliever. His command, once such a strength, didn’t come back in relief, and neither his velocity nor his breaking stuff jumped in the starter-to-‘pen conversion. After just two appearances, he was sent back to Triple-A once more to stretch back out. This time, the Pacific Coast League ate his lunch to the tune of a 7.20 ERA, and he was demoted again to Double-A Binghamton. In Binghamton, the ERA stabilized, but the strikeouts and walks remained very mediocre—just a 40/19 ratio over 49 innings. You can imagine my surprise when the Mets opted to start Montero in the majors on August 29 in the middle of a desperate pennant race.
Montero’s latest major-league run might be his last with the Mets unless he starts showing something fast. Despite six walks, he ran up five scoreless innings in his re-debut against Miami, which bought him another start. Four more walks and three earned runs over 4.3 innings in the second start gave him not only a third start, but plenty of rope with which to hang himself. In that third start, Collins left Montero in after:
- he walked in two runs (and was even allowed to hit for himself in the next half-inning)
- he gave up a home run to the opposing pitcher
- he almost threw away an intentional walk pitch.
It was only after Anthony Rendon’s mammoth home run put the game out of reach that Collins went to go get Montero. It was one of the worst pitching performances we will ever see.
I’ll ask the same rhetorical question to myself about Montero that I asked about Gsellman last week: how is Montero in the majors different from the prospect that we saw in the minors? Let’s start with what isn’t: his fastball velocity remains similar to his prospect days, and his two-seamer still gets appropriately decent movement. The change still flashes as average. Those qualities stayed the same. On the other hand, his slider is no longer good at all, and his command has went from his biggest asset to his biggest flaw. I’ve often wondered when watching Montero whether this goes beyond command problems into an unwillingness to give in and throw strikes in hitter’s counts. It’s really that little of a difference that turned a potential three into a pitcher who can no longer even get outs at Triple-A—it just took command regression and a slider that never developed.
The contrast is that what the Mets have done best is maximizing fastballs and sliders while increasing velocity. Addison Reed’s progression as the Mets is basically the mirror image of Montero’s: in a very short period of time during the 2015 season, Dan Warthen and friends gave Reed a tighter, better slider and his fastball command jumped several grades; this turned him from an up-and-down guy into one of the best relievers in the game. For a more extreme example, Noah Syndergaard added a slider and improved his fastballs, and he went from a pitcher struggling in Triple-A when Montero was called up in 2014 to a Cy Young candidate in 2016
And yet Rafael Montero backslid on the very same things that Warthen and the player development staff have been so successful at teaching to literally all others. It’s almost inexplicable how he’s busted so hard and at the things that the entire Mets cohort seem to have succeeded with. Perhaps the answer is found in the simple teachings of a cross-town icon, John Sterling: you can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.
Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports