How this Tigers prospect had a breakthrough '23

February 20th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck's Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

LAKELAND, Fla. -- was in Minor League camp a year ago and nearing a crossroads.

After six years in the Tigers organization, including a lost 2020 campaign, the Venezuelan-born right-hander was headed toward his third season at High-A West Michigan, where he had posted a 4.80 ERA over 40 starts. Montero's stuff was equal parts electric and erratic, including a nasty breaking ball. Without faster progress, he could’ve been headed to Minor League free agency.

It’s incredible to think about now, as Montero sits in the Major League clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium. Instead of heading to another organization, it’s reasonable to expect him to be headed to Detroit at some point this year. As prospect trajectories go, it’s a curveball as buckling as the one he throws.

“I know I’ve done a lot in the Minor League system,” the Tigers’ No. 26 prospect said last week through Tigers Spanish communication and broadcasting coordinator Carlos Guillen. “I know what I’ve been through and everything I’ve put on to have this opportunity to be here. I just want to give 100 percent of myself so I can prove that I can be a Major League pitcher.”

Montero has the Tigers’ attention. He had it last summer, when they advanced him from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo after just 15 starts.

“There was conversation last year of how much he was factoring in as he was moving,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s a good test case for people, when you watch a prospect moving levels despite his numbers not being glossy when you write them out. It doesn't mean that the ingredients aren’t there for him to be successful.”

The ingredients are evident, and they’ve come in stages. The most glaring is the aforementioned curveball, which Montero can send tumbling over or off the plate. When he’s on, he can generate 3,000-plus rpm worth of spin, the kind of spin rate Reese Olson produced in Detroit last year. It’s not a pitch design development, but something Montero has thrown on his own through his career.

“The spin on the breaking ball, it’s natural. I’ve always had this elevated spin rate,” Montero said. “But I don’t focus on that every time I throw. I just want to throw it in the zone and throw it as good as I can.”

Montero can complement that with a power fastball that saw an uptick in velocity the past couple years, sitting in the mid-90s while tapping into the upper-90s when needed.

“He’s a good pitcher. He’s got real weapons that we like,” Hinch said. “The velocity’s good, curveball’s good. Pitchability has gotten better. He can get to two strikes. He can punch guys out.”

The last part of that, the pitchability and command, was Montero's biggest gain last year. With two in-season promotions, it was an evolving process.

“I did my best in every outing to develop myself in a way that I can help my team to win,” he said. “One of the things I learned was pitch counts, what kind of pitch should I throw, sequences. That’s one of the things that helped me be consistent the whole year, and being consistent was one of the key things that helped me to jump those two levels last year.”

Statistically, it was a breakthrough. After four starts at West Michigan, Montero won 10 of his 15 outings with Erie -- including six consecutive starts in June and July -- then five of eight outings for Toledo. His strikeout rate, which had been just under a strikeout per inning in 2021 and 2022, jumped to 11.8 per nine innings with the SeaWolves, then 10.1 K/9 with the Mud Hens.

“When I took the jump, I had to change the location of my slider and the location of my fastball so it could look different,” Montero said. “I also had to improve the changeup so I could have a good repertoire.”

Montero will stretch out as a starter this spring in anticipation of becoming a depth option this season, following the path Olson and Sawyer Gipson-Long took last year. But his fastball-curveball combination plays well enough that he could become a relief option in time.

“When you stand close to him throwing a [bullpen session], you realize why we like him so much,” Hinch said. “He’s tapping on the door.”