For seven starts, Mike Montgomery could do no wrong. He sported a 1.62 ERA, generated grounders at will, and at one point threw 20 consecutive scoreless innings. He spun a one-hitter against the Padres and made fools of the impending champions. With his calm demeanor and better-than-advertised stuff, Montgomery looked the part as well, and fans could only wonder why he hadn't been recalled sooner. With dependable arms sputtering all around him, Montgomery was a bright spot on a disappointing staff.
Unfortunately, the wheels soon fell off. At once, the league turned into vintage Albert Pujols against Montgomery, battering him to a .331/.418/.566 tune over his final 40 innings of work. The M's finally demoted him after a four-out, five-run game against Oakland, and after making two starts as a Rainier, he was shut down for the year.
It isn't clear why Montgomery's season divides so cleanly into two parts. He used his four-seamer at the expense of his sinker more often as the year wore on, which isn't an insignificant detail for a groundball specialist who stopped getting outs and started allowing homers. Still, his velocity was stable and his overall pitch mix wasn't much different in August than it was in June. Ultimately it's reasonable to think that his overall numbers, or Steamer's mildly optimistic projection for 2016, resemble his true talent going forward. If so, he fits as a fringe contributor to the team next season and in a perfect world, you could pencil him in as Tacoma's opening day starter and use him as an up-and-down guy when needed.
Unfortunately, he's out of options. Committing to keeping Montgomery as a starter only works if you could stick him in the minors for a month or two, but as a lefty with a 90+ MPH fastball, a good changeup, and big league experience, he'll never pass through waivers. Breaking camp with him in the rotation is an unappealing alternative: The M's should be in the market for a free agent starter and even without one, Montgomery finds himself behind Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, Nate Karns, James Paxton, and Roenis Elias on the depth chart. After a drink, you could make a case for tucking him behind Edgar Olmos and Edwin Diaz, too.
With no realistic future in the rotation, Montgomery's days in Seattle are probably numbered. Before discarding him though, the M's should adhere to the Jazayerli Rule: never release a lefty before trying him in the bullpen. The principle should apply to all pitchers, but it's particularly useful with lefties, who can so effectively shut down hitters used to enjoying the platoon advantage.
It's not hard to find examples of rotation washouts thriving in the bullpen. Andrew Miller was a bust as a starter; as a reliever, he's making $10 million per year and collecting down-ballot Cy Young votes. As a starter, Wade Davis was a throw-in to make the James Shields-Wil Myers swap possible; as a reliever, he's practically unhittable. Seattle fans have seen this too: Brandon Maurer couldn't get out of the fifth inning in early 2014, but by the end of the year, he looked qualified to nail down the ninth.
Just about all pitchers stand to benefit from moving to the bullpen. In shorter stints, relievers can afford to exert more effort on each pitch, and they usually throw faster fastballs and sharper breaking balls than they did as starters. As a bonus, relievers are rarely burdened with the times-through-the-order penalty. Since most relievers never face the same hitter twice in one game, they can deploy all of their weapons without needing to save a trick for later.
As a guy who already throws pretty hard, transitioning to the bullpen could work wonders for Montgomery. As a starter, his average fastball was just a hair under 91 MPH. He touched higher though, reaching 93 and 94, and it's realistic to think that he could sit 92-94 in the bullpen. On average, pitchers shifting from the rotation to the bullpen gain about 1 MPH of velocity. It's not uncommon for pitchers to add more than that too, and some gain three or four ticks on their average heater. It's not a foregone conclusion that Montgomery will be one of those big gainers, although the frequency with which he threw 92-93 last year suggests it's safe to project some improvement.
Assuming a modest velocity gain of 1 MPH of average velocity, Montgomery would find himself in good company. There were only 13 left-handed relievers who threw their fastball harder than 92 MPH on average last season, and as a group, they were quite successful:
Empirical evidence proves that more velocity leads to additional missed bats, which translates to a better overall performance. There isn't a 1:1 relationship between velocity and ERA or strikeout rate, but if you throw hard, you're probably going to be successful. If you're a lefty and you throw hard, you're even more valuable.
Of course, velocity gains don't just manifest themselves in harder fastballs. We can also expect Montgomery to spin a tighter curve and he might throw a better change up as well. He had some success with all three offerings last year, and throwing harder will help mask his mediocre command. With three pitches that flash average or better and manageable platoon splits as a starter, Montgomery wouldn't project as a LOOGY, either. If the transition works, they'd have a second lefty capable of getting outs even when opposing managers turn to their bench for a righty.
It's unclear why the Mariners didn't experiment with him in the bullpen at the end of last season. It's a relatively easy transition to make, and lord knows there weren't a stable of quality relievers preventing him from logging innings. By not shifting him to the bullpen down the stretch, the M's never got to see what Montgomery can do in short stints. That's not to say we should be nervous about how he'd handle the transition; it's just a missed opportunity. Relievers often only need a few innings to make a convincing case that they belong in a major league bullpen, and Montgomery was deprived his chance.
And so, short of Jerry Jerrying him out of town, Montgomery will pack for Peoria with an uncertain and likely brief future in the Mariners organization. As things stand though, the Mariners need another lefty in the bullpen and they might as well use spring training to determine whether their out-of-favor southpaw can handle the job. It's no sure thing, of course. Not everyone who moves to the bullpen sees an uptick in their stuff or velocity right away, and the Mariners aren't in a position to be patient with Montgomery. Perhaps his arm won't respond well to the new role. Maybe he won't be interested in relieving. There are plenty of reasons why this might not work.
It's worth a shot though. Montgomery has no future in Seattle's rotation, and if he's going to pitch his way onto the team next March, he'll have to do so out of the bullpen. He should be evaluated as a reliever from day one in spring training next year.