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Is 2015 Finally Mike Montgomery’s Year for the Rays?

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In 2011, Mike Montgomery pitched so well in spring training that he nearly cracked the Kansas City Royals’ Opening Day rotation. Nearly four years later, he still hasn’t pitched in a big league game. Montgomery’s career has gone about as badly as anyone could have imagined since then. While injuries have not affected Montgomery much, his ERA has been just 5.18 and it took him until 2014 to manage a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio again.

Speaking of last season, it was certainly a major step in the right direction for the lefty Montgomery. He went 10-5 with a 4.29 ERA, a 7.0 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 126 innings, meeting the standards of respectability for the first time since 2010. But even amid somewhat of a return to form, Montgomery has to be disappointed with way his season concluded. Through his first 17 starts, he had a 3.21 ERA and a 79-30 K-BB ratio. In his last 8, his ERA and K-BB ratio declined to 7.63 and 19-18 respectively.

Yet despite the tough finish, despite the years of poor results, it says something that Mike Montgomery still has a chance to be an impact player in the major leagues. The chances of that happening as a starting pitcher appear to be negligible now, but the Rays are open to looking at him as a reliever this spring. Even as we acknowledge Montgomery’s flaws, such a role could make a lot of sense.

The only time that Montgomery has pitched consistently in relief was in the 2013 Arizona Fall League. It was there, with the Salt River Rafters, that Montgomery showed flashes of the player he once was. His fastball was reaching 95 MPH again to join his usual plus changeup as he delivered a 2.57 ERA and a 14-4 strikeout to walk ratio in 14.0 innings pitched. It was a good enough experience that Montgomery said a potential conversion to relief would be “seamless.”

The biggest highlight of all for Mike Montgomery in 2014 was his performance against left-handed batters. Montgomery had a reverse split in the past, but between the Rays having him throw more changeups to lefty batters and his moderate progress with a slider, he held them to .248/.297/.376 line with an impressive 21 strikeouts versus just 7 walks. It is not difficult to see a good lefty specialist as you look at those statistics and Montgomery’s stuff.

Of course, Montgomery still has the ability to be more than that. He was solid against right-handed batters as they hit to a .244/.323/.368 line with 77 strikeouts against 41 walks. That strikeout to walk ratio could be more encouraging, but in long relief, that could easily be good enough. Then, after some time in such a role, the Rays could dream of Montgomery taking another step and emerging as a higher-leverage option.

Kevin Cash stepped back from comparing Montgomery to Andrew Miller. However, that is the path that Montgomery hopes is ahead. Miller is another former top starting pitching prospect who faltered until he finally moved to relief. Then, after two years as a lefty specialist, he started dominating everyone between the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles in 2014.

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Of course, the comparison isn’t perfect. Miller headed to relief full-time when he was 27 years of age and after years of failed big league stints–Montgomery doesn’t turn 26 until July and hasn’t pitched in the majors yet. It also seems like Montgomery’s first step would more likely be long relief, more similar to Wade Davis and Alex Torres. But in any case, even if there is no scenario where Montgomery can become an ace starting pitcher, “dominant late-inning arm” remains within the realm of possibility.

Looking at the Rays’ other realistic long relief options, none of them combines stuff, readiness for the big leagues, and advancement potential within the bullpen like Mike Montgomery except for Alex Colome. If Colome earns the Rays’ fifth starter job, then Montgomery’s top competitors would be Ronald Belisario, Brandon Gomes, Steve Geltz, and C.J. Riefenhauser. Do any of them really compare to him?

Belisario is the most experienced option of the four, but he is currently hurt. Gomes has been continuously adjusted to by the league and it seems crazy for the Rays to give him another chance. Geltz could be a plausible candidate, but his command remains iffy, he could use more Triple-A time, and his arsenal is no better than Montgomery’s. Riefenhauser could also use more appearances at Triple-A Durham as he hopes to reach his potential, and his stuff is also several steps down.

By the way, none of those four pitchers is a true long reliever. All of them would be extending themselves to pitch multiple innings on a regular basis while Montgomery could do so quite easily. With all of this in mind, Montgomery is the best fit for the role if the Rays are willing to give him a chance.

The other factor in all of this is the Durham Bulls’ rotation. If Colome wins the fifth starter job, there will simply not be enough spots for everyone. Nate Karns, Matt Andriese, Enny Romero, Montgomery, Burch Smith, and Dylan Floro would all deserve to be at the level, but only five of them can start. Given that the Rays have enough starting pitching depth, it is time to send someone to relief, and Montgomery looks like the most sensible candidate.

If the Tampa Bay Rays are serious about using Mike Montgomery in relief, he should be in their bullpen for this coming season if Colome is their fifth starter. They have nothing more to gain keeping him at Triple-A and he has the ability to a strong long reliever immediately with the possibility for more later on. If Montgomery is going to get a chance to follow the path of Andrew Miller, it is time for that process to begin.

Next: Insights From Minor League Ball's Top 20 Rays Prospects

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