Does Rafael Montero have a case as the Mets’ top prospect?

Rafael MonteroIf you ask Mets fans about players in the farm system that have yet to make their major league debut, 100 out of 100 will say that Noah Syndergaard is the team’s best prospect. They will also say that they have high hopes for Rafael Montero yet they do not put him at the same level as Syndergaard. If the Mets were to make an offseason deal for a hitter, most fans view Syndergaard as being untouchable yet would include Montero to get an impact bat.

It’s not limited to just fans, as every prospect list out there will have Syndergaard rated higher than Montero. It’s rare to have such unanimous support about top notch young pitching prospects, especially considering that the one ranked lower has experienced great success at Triple-A. So, why is it that fans are so high on Syndergaard yet are not as enamored with Montero?

Most Mets fans were completely unaware of Syndergaard this time last year, as he was a Blue Jays prospect who had just finished playing in Lo-A ball. But after his inclusion in the R.A. Dickey deal he immediately jumped into everyone’s consciousness, even if fans still thought of Travis d’Arnaud as the centerpiece of the deal.

In last year’s Top 10 prospects article, here’s part of the write-up on Syndergaard, who I placed as the team’s number-two prospect:

For the Mets, d’Arnaud was much more important as he filled a position of dire need. The Mets have solid pitching at the major league level, several very good pitching prospects and hardly a starting-caliber catcher in sight. But five to seven years from now, I expect Syndergaard to be a more valuable player.

Meanwhile, Montero was ranked sixth in the same piece.

So, if Syndergaard was ranked higher to begin the year, turned in a terrific season, and is now considered by everyone as the club’s top prospect – what is the issue? Well, it just seems to me that we are all selling Montero’s year – and overall prospect status – a bit short.

Both Montero and Syndergaard pitched last year in Double-A. Montero started the season there and earned a promotion to Triple-A, while Syndergaard got the call to Binghamton after opening the year in Hi-A St. Lucie. Here’s how both pitchers did when they were at the same level:

IP Record ERA FIP WHIP
Montero 66.2 7-3 2.43 1.88 0.92
Syndergaard 54.0 6-1 3.00 3.24 1.07

Montero’s numbers were better. To be fair, Syndergaard had a 1.59 ERA in his first 10 appearances in Double-A but was lit up like a Christmas tree in his last outing of the regular season. He also was knocked around in his playoff start. It could be a young guy tiring, it could be the league catching up to him, it could be he picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue. Whatever the reason, we have to say that Montero had better results when they were at the same level.

Additionally, Montero went on to post tremendous numbers in one of the most challenging environments for a pitcher in minor league baseball. The Pacific Coast League is hitter-friendly and Las Vegas is perhaps the best offensive environment in that league. So, in 88.2 IP in Triple-A, Montero posts a 3.05 ERA and a 2.87 FIP.

Among 102 pitchers to throw at least 70 IP last year in the PCL, Montero’s FIP ranked third. FanGraphs has minor league numbers going back to 2006 and in those eight years, Montero’s 2.87 FIP is the best mark ever put up by a Las Vegas pitcher. The closest pitcher on last year’s Las Vegas staff was Carlos Torres, who recorded a 3.48 FIP before going on to success in the majors.

Montero’s back story helps explain why he is not as highly-touted as his results suggest he should be. While most of the top Dominican players sign at age 16 or 17, Montero did not begin to even play baseball until that age and did not sign until he was age 20. But he’s been making up ground ever since.

He started 2011 in the Dominican Summer League but finished the year in this country, spending time at all three of the Mets’ short-season affiliates. Then in 2012 he pitched in both Lo-A and Hi-A, leading to split time in 2013 in the two highest levels of the farm system.

Perhaps because he wasn’t highly regarded and then proceeded to fly through the organization, there just hasn’t been time for the hype to catch up, especially with everyone preoccupied with Syndergaard, who does have the huge advantage of being two years younger.

In addition to being younger, Syndergaard also throws harder. Montero regularly works in the 91-93 range and can dial it up a tick or two faster. But it’s more than just velocity with Montero. His fastball has late movement and he has excellent control with the pitch. But because he doesn’t regularly throw in the mid-90s, people claim that he has the ceiling of a mid-rotation starter.

Coming into 2013, people worried if upper level hitters would be able to handle his fastball and tee off on Montero’s off-speed offerings. Neither his change nor his slider were thought to be good pitches, although the change was considered the better of the two offerings. Yet Montero starred in both Double and Triple-A here in 2013.

Given his pedigree (supplemental first-round pick), ideal pitcher’s frame (6’6, 240), youth (turned 21 in late August) and results – Syndergaard deserves all the attention he’s received. But given his late introduction to the sport, Montero’s accomplishments have not fully been appreciated. What he achieved in 2013 is tremendous in its own right but for a person who only started playing the game five years ago, they are nothing short of remarkable.

Syndergaard being two years younger may ultimately mean he’s the better pitching prospect. But for Montero to enjoy the success he did in Las Vegas at age 22 should not be dismissed so lightly. Hopefully we will get to see Syndergaard in Triple-A in 2014. May he enjoy similar success at that level as Montero did.

19 comments for “Does Rafael Montero have a case as the Mets’ top prospect?

  1. October 22, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Nice reminder about Montero, Brian. I think you addressed the biggest reasons why Montero gets pushed behind Syndergaard. Build, age, velocity, and pedigree all go decidedly to Syndergaard. It doesn’t help that perhaps Montero’s biggest asset, his pinpoint control, is also an area of strength for Syndergaard (which runs in contrast to Zack Wheeler and many other prospects of Syndergaard’s ilk). Being a smallish righty without knockout velo who took an atypical route to prospecthood, Montero’s always going to be a guy with whom prospectors & fans are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Especially since he’s being compared with what’s now a string of prototypical ace-type starting pitching prospects. I don’t think Montero has much of a case as the Mets’ top prospect, but to your point, if Syndergaard had never become a Met, I agree that there would be a LOT more hype around Montero among Mets fans. Here’s hoping two or three years from now, we’re debating which of the Mets’ four aces is the aciest.

  2. October 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Strikeouts matter.

    It’s a mantra for me when analyzing the minors and building a fantasy team.

    Montero has a ceiling of being a #3 pitcher. He just doesn’t have the pitching stuff to make batters swing and miss and while he’ll keep you in games he isn’t going to carry the team on his shoulders.

    Syndergaard has the STUFF to be as good as Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler and perform as an “Ace” which Montero will probably never do.

    • October 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      Does Zack Wheeler have the stuff to make batters swing and miss? Because opposing batters had a lower contact% number against Montero than they did Wheeler in Las Vegas last year.

      Minor League Central has Contact% numbers for the PCL (they do not for EAST). Both Wheeler and Torres had a 79.8 Con% number while Montero’s was at 78.2

    • edmet
      October 27, 2013 at 11:40 am

      ever hear of a guy named Gregg maddux? tom Glavine? they didn’t throw 97 plus, did they?

  3. Shu
    October 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Sure Montero outperformed Syndergaard this year but he is two years older and that DOES matter. You can’t just scout the box scores for minor leaguers.Syndergaard was just rusty in that last start and you should have paid more close attention to his playoff start. He shook off rust in the first inning(2nd time pitching in 17 days) and absolutely destroyed the Trenton lineup the next 5 innings working in the high 90-s with a devastating hook. The gap in Syndergaard’s stuff and size and Montero’s stuff and size is a lot bigger than the gap in command(which is tiny cause Syndergaard has great command too)

    Syndergaard’s realistic floor at this point is on par with Montero’s realistic ceiling. Listen I like Montero as a prospect but this is not a debate. Not only does Syndergaard have a better fastball but his offspeed stuff is better. The reason that Montero is labeled a number 3 is because his offspeed stuff is average. Syndergaard has a plus curveball and a promising changeup. It’s not close.

    • October 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm

      Hey Shu – thanks for reading and commenting!

      Syndergaard’s realistic floor is that he gets hurt and never reaches the majors.

      While his playoff start was his second game in 17 days, it was his last start of the regular season where he suffered the big time off between starts. In the playoffs, he was twice given a lead and didn’t hold it. I’d hold off on the hyperbole on that one particular game.

      Syndergaard is two years younger but Montero is a level ahead of him so in reality the edge is one year. And given Montero’s late start to the game, I don’t view that as a major edge for Syndergaard. Your mileage may vary.

      Syndergaard’s a great prospect and he may very well turn into a multi-time All-Star while Montero is nothing more than your run-of-the-mill back-end SP. I hope to cheer for Syndergaard and write many glowing stories the next two decades.

      The point wasn’t to drag Syndergaard down but rather to point out that Montero is a gem, too.

      • Shu
        October 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm

        Oh I agree. Montero is a gem and probably a top 50-75 prospect in baseball. But I just think that there is no argument for him being a better prospect than Syndergaard(who is a top 10-15 prospect) despite what the numbers say because prospect scouting only partially relies on numbers. Syndergaard in the playoff start was nasty beyond the first inning…that isn’t hyperbole. (the 3rd earned run to score off him was when Tovar booted a makeable ground ball).
        By realistic floor I meant that if Syndergaard does not get hurt or else you could say that everyone’s floor would be to get hurt and not make the majors.

        I think this article does a fine job of showing how good Montero’s incredible season was, but imo you just can’t compare his prospect status to Syndergaard’s. That’s all. I mean these guys are both met prospects so will I care if Montero turns into a TOR pitcher and Syndergaard a mid-rotation pitcher or the other way around? Of course not!

        • October 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm

          I think it’s safe to say that the last two seasons that Montero has been underrated by virtually everyone. To have the success that he did last year in Las Vegas, when many were predicting that Double-A hitters would smack him around, was just a big wakeup call for me.

    • Za
      October 22, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      Don’t forget Syndergaard’s plus fastball, either. It’s faster, has more movement, and is thrown on a more downward plane than Montero’s. Frankly, with Montero’s control and our depth at starter, I’d love to see Montero join Black and Parnell in that bullpen. He can also get up to 95 in short spurts.

  4. JimO
    October 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    We can hope that both pitchers are still with us and show “lights out” stuff in March.

  5. Name
    October 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    The problem with these “prospect lists” is that there is no set of criteria to judge prospects, and there will never will be. Do you judge based on ceiling? Floor? Average-case? Duration of above-average play? Duration of dominance? How long after a player makes their MLB debut do you consider? The first 2-3 years? Until they hit Free Agency? Their whole career? How do you take in account when Player A is expected to make it to the big leagues before player B? These are only some but there are many more.

    You oould probably make a case for either player using some combination of the criteria I listed above.

    • October 22, 2013 at 6:52 pm

      But that’s the point – since these lists are open to interpretation, you would think that someone would rank Montero higher. But no one does.

      I’m not saying that I do. In all honesty, I’m still thinking about it. A few years ago it was all the rage to try to frame things in a “Scouts vs. Stats” way. While that’s an oversimplification, it applies here.

      Syndergaard wins hands down in the “Scouts” view and he has zero to apologize for with his “Stats,” too. But Montero, pitching in the highest levels of the system — put up numbers that are better. I’m just saying that means something.

  6. Za
    October 22, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Love reading your articles because of the fresh perspective they give. However, sometimes you try a bit too hard to cherry pick stats and this is a great example – here, you even acknowledge it.

    If we look at Syndergaard’s last 5 regular season starts, we see the first 4 on regular rest and the last one on 10 days’ rest (he pitched on 8/16 and then didn’t pitch again until 8/26). In the first of his last 5 starts, he pitched 6 innings, struck out 8, didn’t walk a batter, and gave up a single earned run. In the next 3 starts, he pitched 5 innings each time as per his limit, and didn’t give up an earned run. That’s 18 Ks, 2 BB, no ER, and only 7 hits across those three starts. Then the Mets gave him more than a week off so it’s not surprising he was rusty. You remove that last start and Syndergaard’s numbers blow Montero’s away.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/statsd.aspx?playerid=sa548169&position=P

    • Za
      October 22, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Forgot to add – and then in that last start, he gave up 11 runs, 9 ER in 3 innings. Whoomp.

    • October 22, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      I really take issue with the idea that I presented cherry picked stats in this article.

      If Montero was considered the star and I was making the case for Syndergaard and left off his last start — that would be a case of cherry picked stats.

      Instead I presented everything he did in Double-A. I even expressly noted how the last start dragged down his overall numbers. That’s the opposite of cherry picking stats.

      Obviously, I don’t disagree that his numbers were great until the last start. But we can’t pretend that start didn’t happen. Just like we can’t pretend that Darin Gorski’s last start in 2012 didn’t happen. We can point it out, give a reason for why his performance wasn’t good and why we should consider his overall line differently. But we can’t ignore it completely.

      Finally, if we remove that stat, Syndergaard’s Double-A FIP improves from 3.24 to 2.63 – a tremendous jump. It still leaves him shy of what Montero did at Binghamton, as he had a 1.88 FIP. It’s simply not true that Syndergaard blows him out of the water if you remove the one start.

  7. Sean Flattery
    October 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Good Stuff!! Alot of what you brought up Brian I thought of this year too. Montero was all the rage last year, but not so much in 2013. As others said, I would guess Thor’s upside or “ceiling” is what people see on the major league level. He seems to have the ace quality attributes. That’s not to say Montero won’t excel either. The unknown factor will always be there until they hit the bigs; much of what makes these discussions fascinating before hand.

  8. October 22, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    This article is absolutely correct and Montero is a great prospect and he really deserves more credit

  9. Metsense
    October 22, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    It appears that Syndergaard has the higher ceiling, youth and a power arm. Montero is just below him but could conceivably be a TOR pitcher based on his FIP , ERA and WHIP in AA and AAA. If those numbers in the difficult PCL could transpose to the Majors he would clearly be one of the top 15 pitchers in the NL. It may be wishful or hopeful thinking on my part but the point is that just like Syndergaard should not be traded this winter, neither should Montero. Instead I would expect him to be an integral part of the 2014 post May rotation.

  10. tom
    October 23, 2013 at 6:33 am

    One point not noted is Montero, after his promotion from AA, pitched pretty weakly for several starts, but then dominated (8 runs last 45 innings, a K per inning). So ignore the 3.05 AAA ERA…he was a lot better than that. So is he or Noah better long term? Debatable. But Montero’s last 8 games scream “do NOT underestimate me.”

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