The easiest way to add to a bullpen in the off-season is by signing any of the free agent relief arms flooding the market, but Jerry Dipoto just can’t quit out of the trading screen that easily. Jeff Passan reports the Mariners are trading with the Rangers to acquire 30-year-old righty Rafael Montero. (Please, hold your Montero trade jokes till the end of the article.) In return, the Mariners will be sending the Rangers #22 prospect Jose Corniell, a big-bodied righty who received the second-highest bonus from the Mariners in the 2019 signing class. The 17-year-old was most recently at the Mariners’ fall development league, where Rangers execs would have gotten a good look at him. There’s also apparently a PTBNL headed over in the deal, heightening the prospect cost for Seattle.
Montero is a curious target for the not-really-contending Mariners in that he’s already 30, so doesn’t seem like an ideal fit for the rebuilding window, and he’s already six seasons deep into his MLB career, with only two seasons of team control remaining. In those six seasons, however, Montero has only pitched just shy of 240 innings, and half of that came in 2017 with the Mets when he worked as a starter and logged 120 innings. Injuries have kept the former Mets top prospect off the field, but when Montero was coming up in NY’s system, his name was often mentioned in tandem with—or occasionally above—Jacob DeGrom’s. In 2013, Minor League Ball had him as NY’s #10 prospect (DeGrom was #13), and tabbed him as a mid-rotation starter. FanGraphs had him all the way at #5 in their roundup of the 2013 Mets system, just behind Syndergaard and Wilmer Flores. While Montero didn’t possess the pure electricity of a Syndergaard, he was constantly lauded for his ability to control his low-90s fastball along with a plus slider and advanced feel for a changeup. Most evaluators saw a solid back-of-the-rotation skillset with a middle-rotation ceiling.
Unfortunately for Montero, that wasn’t the case when he finally made it to the bigs in 2014. His trademark command departed, with a BB% rising well into the double digits, and batters slugged well over .450 on all of his offerings. Montero rode the Triple-A shuttle (a particularly grueling one, as the Mets’ Triple-A club at the time was located in Las Vegas) in 2014, losing some time to injuries, and then was solidly waylaid by right rotator cuff inflammation in 2015, cutting a revenge tour of the major leagues short. Montero did return full-time in 2017, when he logged half of his professional innings as the back-end starter he was projected to be, but had to have Tommy John surgery in the off-season, ending both his 2018 season and career with the New York Mets.
The Rangers signed Montero as a minor-league free agent in 2019 and immediately converted him to a bullpen role, where his four-seamer jumped from 93 to 96-ish. On August 7, 2020, Montero recorded his first-ever major-league save—six years, two months, and 25 days after he threw his first professional pitch—striking out Mike Trout to end the game. He went on to lead the Rangers in saves in 2020, with eight, earning the de facto title of closer. You might remember him from this strikeout of Austin Nola:
Just kidding. This is probably what you know Rafael Montero from, even if you didn’t know it was Rafael Montero who threw that pitch:
While Montero has continued to lean heavily on his fastball in a high-leverage role, it’s interesting to note the pitch he’s significantly dialed down with Texas is the once-promising slider, which he now throws only around 10% of the time despite a 38.5% Whiff rate on the pitch in 2019. Recently, Montero’s primary secondary is instead the change, which isn’t a strikeout pitch but induces some extreme weak contact; batters slugged just .175 off his change in 2019.
That’s solid work, but it’s not a profile that screams closer, except perhaps for the hapless 2020 Rangers. Also of concern: a barrel rate with Texas of just under 15%, or more than double MLB average, a result of the Rangers encouraging Montero to throw the ball down the middle more often in order to solve his walk yips. Solving those BB-yips will now be the task of the Mariners’ PD staff, in addition to helping Montero continue to maintain the mid-90s velocity required of a high-leverage bullpen arm while also maintaining his arm health; Montero was shut down in July/August with right elbow tendinitis.
Giving up a promising young pitcher like Corniell plus a PTBNL in exchange for a 30-year-old pitcher with only two years of team control remaining might feel to some like an unpleasant retread of the early Dipoto years of dealing off pieces of the farm for win-now pieces that were never quite enough to get the Mariners over the hump (can I interest anyone in a David Phelps or Nick Rumbelow trade retrospective? No? That’s fair.); however, it’s also a sign that the Mariners are committed to improving on their biggest weakness from last season, the abandoned Sizzler’s in a mall parking lot that masqueraded as their bullpen. As John Trupin notes, it could also be a carrot towards ownership to prove that the current core is closer to contention than their 2019-20 records suggest (cue the Parks and Rec “Money, please!” gif). Attendant to that, Shannon Drayer reports the Mariners have been linked to two spicy names on the FA reliever list, Blake Treinen and Keynan Middleton. Middleton was my dream free agent target who I wrote up here. Mariner beat reports tend to be a fairly reliable indication that serious/imminent conversations are going on [stares in Blake Snell and Feinsand], so we’ll keep an eye on that stove to see if anything else is a-bubbling.