No prospect was as frustrating to follow in 2011 as Mike Montgomery. After rolling through the minors with little to no resistance, it looked like he might have a shot to crack the opening day roster, but for sure was going to make the major leagues at some point.
A dominating performance in the Royals Futures Game on April 2nd further enhanced that outlook. Montgomery threw four innings walking just one and allowing two balls out of the infield total. He struck Wil Myers out on three straight fastballs, each increasing in velocity. He looked every bit the top 20 prospect that Baseball America had touted him as.
A strong April where Montgomery had a 2.67 ERA in 27 innings for Omaha gave hope that he’d be up before the All-Star break. Then he started to struggle.
And the struggles continued. Montgomery walked 4.1 batters per nine innings in 150.2 innings for the Storm Chasers. There were reports that his delivery was all over the place and his command suffered. He walked batters and gave up hits. It’s a blessing that he didn’t have an ERA higher than the 5.32 he’d reached at the end of the year. The guy who looked like an ace in April was putting up rough numbers every other month.
So now what?
Part of Montgomery’s struggles were due to issues with his curveball and location. Lee Warren of OmahaBaseball360.com said he’d left it up often and wasn’t throwing it for strikes. The changeup, particularly against lefties, has given him trouble as well. There haven’t been reports of velocity issues, so it’s all tied into the command of his arsenal.
When he doesn’t have command, that’s when he starts walking batters and starts giving up hits. Montgomery gave up a combined 13.5 hits and walks per nine innings last year. Prior to 2011, he’d surrendered seven total homers in three seasons. Pacific Coast League batters hit 15 off of him last year. Those elements combine for a rough year.
Despite that spike in homers, Monty gave up just under one per nine innings, so if you’re looking for a positive, he was merely average in that regard. There were no injury issues reported, which is a good sign, as he’d battled some elbow soreness multiple times in 2010.
I wouldn’t rule out occasional focus issues to explain Montgomery’s tough season. With his past performance, his ranking within the organization and nine innings in spring training where he gave up just one run and five hits (though he walked eight), it wouldn’t be surprising for Montgomery to feel like he could have made the majors out of spring training. His strong April would only bolster that belief. Scouting reports when Montgomery was in the draft stated he was a competitive player and that same competitiveness could lead to frustration when he’s not performing where he should be or as well as he should be.
In the past, he’s had differences with the Royals about training and throwing programs. Montgomery has been a long-toss guy and the Royals, at least a couple of years ago, were less open to those programs. That’s softened recently. That makes 2011 a developmental year. In the first Hot Stove show on 610 AM, Dayton Moore suggested as much, that Monty was seeing developmental phases and as a result, his changeup is “a full grade better” and he’s improved first-pitch strike rates. Moore said Montgomery is “right where he needs to be” and could “burst onto the scene” in 2012.
That fits. Montgomery still has the talent to be a top of the rotation starter. What’s changed is the likelihood that he reaches that potential. Through it all, he hasn’t lost his confidence, according to Moore, and 2012 is an opportunity to see how he reacts to failure.
There’s an outside chance that Montgomery makes the opening day roster, but it’s going to take some maneuvering. It seems that Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez and Bruce Chen are absolute locks, barring injury, for the rotation, while Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy – the incumbents – are favored to stay in the rotation as well. Aaron Crow, Everett Teaford and others are in the mix as well for the final rotation spots. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Royals leave Duffy in Triple A (considering he was in the majors for most of last season and it could manipulate his service time) with Montgomery in the majors if Monty has a good spring.
Montgomery is just as important to the Royals as Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas. Of their group of young pitchers, he has the highest ceiling, but with that upside, he has the potential to bust out, too. If he turns it on (and he’s only turning 23 in July), he’ll be a big, strong left-handed starter for the big league club and hopefully, their ace when the playoffs come around.