PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- There was no nibbling Sunday, no uncertainty. Rafael Montero attacked, throwing 18 of his 23 pitches in the zone. He threw first-pitch strikes to five of the six hitters he faced in the Mets' 10-3 Grapefruit League win over the Marlins, striking out the side
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- There was no nibbling Sunday, no uncertainty. Rafael Montero attacked, throwing 18 of his 23 pitches in the zone. He threw first-pitch strikes to five of the six hitters he faced in the Mets' 10-3 Grapefruit League win over the Marlins, striking out the side in the ninth inning and four men in total. His fastball rested at 93 mph.
It was a Spring Training game, and an early one at that. It also wasn't anything particularly new for Montero, a former top prospect who has achieved success in spurts at the big league level -- including a lifetime 2.75 Spring Training ERA, with more than three times as many strikeouts as walks.
But it was nonetheless a stark departure from the norm for Montero, who has maddened the Mets with his inability -- some call it a refusal -- to throw strikes during the regular season. As a prospect, Montero rose through the system in large part due to his control. Since first reaching the big leagues in 2014, Montero has walked 5.2 batters per nine, resulting in nine -- count 'em, nine -- Minor League demotions in four years. The past two seasons, Montero has posted the second-worst ERA among National League pitchers with at least 135 innings.
As a result of all his frequent flyer miles, Montero is out of Minor League options. The Mets passed on opportunities to take him off their 40-man roster this winter, instead designating Kevin McGowan, Chasen Bradford, Josh Smoker and Matt Reynolds for assignment over a period of three weeks. They lost all but McGowan to waiver claims or trades.
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They wouldn't have done that if their plan was simply to cut Montero, who not so long ago ranked above Jacob deGrom on their depth chart, at the end of camp. So the Mets find themselves backed into a corner: Either Montero makes the roster, or everything they did to protect him this offseason will go for naught.
"I'm very thankful for that, for them giving me the opportunity to be here," Montero said through an interpreter. "Now it's up to me to do my job."
Mets officials have reason to believe Montero is due for a rebound, pointing to his .367 batting average on balls in play the past two seasons. Among pitchers with as many innings as Montero, only Homer Bailey was unluckier in terms of BABIP. Need more proof? Among those who have thrown at least 2,500 pitches the past two seasons, Montero ranks 179th in average opponent exit velocity, according to Statcast™.
More anecdotally, those in Montero's camp point to a five-game stretch last August in which he started four times, posted a 2.77 ERA and struck out nearly a batter per inning -- numbers similar to what he put up as a prospect in the Minors.
"A lot of times, guys get up here and they think they have to do something different," pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "They pitch away from contact, instead of staying on the attack, trusting in their stuff and believing in it."
Former Mets manager Terry Collins, who once drove from Miami to Port St. Lucie on an off-day just to give Montero a pep talk, said similar things about the enigmatic pitcher during his strong run last August. It didn't last; Montero again lost the strike zone, producing a 5.76 ERA in September. So take anything he does this spring with several grains of salt, if not a whole shaker.
But unless Montero implodes over the next four weeks, it seems likely he will be part of the Opening Day bullpen mix.
It almost certainly will be his last chance with the Mets.
"Toward the end of last season, I had a very good moment," Montero said. "But right now, I have no control of what's going on. Wherever they put me, I just have to make outs."