You saw Mike Montgomery‘s stuff and his talent was undeniable. It seemed like only a matter of time before everything would click and he would ascend to the major leagues to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. Then Montgomery had a rough 2011 and it was dismissed as just a rough year. 2012 was even worse, though, and Montgomery’s prospects were in serious question. The Kansas City Royals dealt him in the James Shields deal, having seen enough failure that they were ready to move on. This past season, Montgomery showed marginal improvement, but his 4.72 ERA was still no reason for celebration and he turned 24 years old in July. The Rays sent Montgomery to the Arizona Fall League in a last-ditch effort to salvage his ability. Finally, Montgomery responded.
In nine appearances and 14 innings pitched, Montgomery allowed just 4 earned runs on 12 hits, striking out 14 while walking just 4. Three of his four earned runs came in his first appearance and three of four walks came in one outing as well. It was a small sample size, Montgomery was as dominant as we had seen him in years. It wasn’t jsut results either. Montgomery stayed at 92-93 MPH and hit as high as 95 MPH with his fastball and started doing a better job locating it down in the zone. He threw two different breaking balls, a curveball and a slider, and both showed flashes of being swing-and-miss pitches. And then there was the pitch that never forsake Montgomery, his changeup, which Montgomery focused less on but still looked very good when he did throw it. But here is the thing: Montgomery did this all in relief. What does this mean for Montgomery next season?
The biggest takeaway from Montgomery in the Arizona Fall League was that his pitchers looked crisper and he did a better job locating them. Montgomery said as much talking to MiLB.com. Montgomery’s stuff never developed as hoped, but if he can command his arsenal well, he still has the ability to be an effective big league starting pitcher. You have to think that at the beginning of the season at least, the Rays will send him back at Triple-A Durham hoping that he continues to get the type of results he got in the Arizona Fall League and forces his way into their rotation. If that does not happen, though, Montgomery has a chance to follow the path that Alex Torres walked last season.
Torres was another lefty with great stuff who simply could not put it together, but he proceeded to have a great winter season in the Venezuelan Winter League to enter 2013 with renewed optimism. Torres had seven strong starts at Triple-A before getting the call to the big leagues in a relief role, and after a brief demotion, Torres was in the big leagues to stay, delivering an outstanding rookie year. Montgomery is on the 40-man roster and you have to think he will finally make his big league debut at some point in 2014. Even if he is out of time to put it together as a starter, a relief role could suit him just fine. Montgomery’s fastball-changeup combination has to remind you of Torres, and if his breaking ball is an effective third pitch, that is only a bonus. Montgomery also dominated lefties in the AFL, holding them to just a .150 average in 21 plate appearances with 6 strikeouts against just one walk, the polar opposite of his reverse split in the minors the last three years. If Montgomery has broken through enough with his breaking ball to beat same-side batters, that makes his future in relief even more clear.
Just because he had a great month in the Arizona Fall League doesn’t mean that Mike Montgomery has come all the way back. But now there is finally a reason for optimism and something for Montgomery to build on moving forward as he hopes to finally crack a big league roster. Montgomery showed enough improvement that he will get another look as a starting pitcher, but even if that does not work out, a future in the Rays’ bullpen is looking more and more likely. Montgomery will never be the ace he seemed destined to be, but the chances are increasing that he can make an impact in the big leagues, and the Rays will take whatever they can get.