Rays hoping to uncover hidden gem in Montgomery
Left-hander learning ropes in an organization that grooms Major League starters
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If ever there was a place for a young left-hander with power stuff to learn, it's in the Rays organization.
This takes nothing away from other systems, but any club that can boast David Price and Matt Moore as homegrown rotation mates has to be a great laboratory for a wayward young southpaw to walk into.
Enter Mike Montgomery, one of the "other" pieces the Rays got from the Kansas City Royals in the big James Shields/Wade Davis trade. Yes, Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi get most of the ink from that deal, but if Montgomery can regain the form that once made him one of the more exciting lefty prospects in the game, he could be on the same pedestal as his former Royals organization mates.
That's a future goal, but for right now, the Rays' No. 8 prospect is still getting used to his surroundings, getting acclimated to his new team in big league camp.
"I don't know if I feel acclimated yet, but I feel comfortable," said Montgomery, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning against the Twins in Fort Myers on Tuesday in his third Grapefruit League outing. "The guys have brought me in and made me feel comfortable. I want to learn from these guys. I haven't had a couple of years I've wanted to, but I feel confident about this year, confident about the new setting, the new team."
Montgomery's confidence was undoubtedly shaken in 2011 and '12, the couple of seasons the 23-year-old refers to. Last year, Montgomery started his second year in Triple-A, then got demoted, finishing the season with a 6.07 ERA, following up a 5.32 ERA in 2011. The difficult thing to understand, especially for Montgomery, was how the wheels fell off. His arm felt fine, his pure stuff was still good. The results just didn't come with it.
"It was frustrating, it really was, to go out there and still have good stuff," Montgomery said. "There were times I actually thought I pitched well. I'd look at the scoreboard and it wasn't good. That right there is the mentally frustrating part. How do you still have confidence when you go out there and you don't have good results?
"It goes back to being able to take a step back and be able to have that focus of one pitch at a time and not worrying about what else happens. It's as simple as that, but it's a tough thing to do. I want to learn and develop that skill."
Montgomery will be able to learn by watching, and he's already done that, taking in what Price and Moore do on a daily basis, both on the mound and off it, in order to help develop that approach and rebuild his confidence. At 6-foot-4, Montgomery probably can glean more from Price, size and frame-wise, but having a pair of power lefties to watch daily should be the biggest benefit of big league camp for Montgomery.
"I watched Price's game the other day," Montgomery said. "There's something about the way he and Matt, the way they throw and the way they go about their business. It's definitely a good thing for me to see and to take after, and I'm definitely doing that.
"Guys like that who've had success and are similar to me, I'm definitely looking at them and saying, 'What is this guy doing to be successful? And what can I take from him and apply to my game?'"
Some of what Montgomery can take away is that confidence in the ability to get hitters out. Price is obviously ahead of Moore on the success scale, but both have the innate belief that even if things aren't going well at a given moment, they can figure out how to turn it around. This kind of mental lesson should help Montgomery, who undoubtedly let things snowball in 2012.
"I haven't been able to pick his brain enough to see if he knows what I know," Moore said. "What I know is if I'm not throwing strikes, I'm going to find a way to throw strikes. I've convinced myself that, 'This won't keep going, this is going to turn around, I am going to weather this and it will come out shiny on the other side.' I haven't gotten to know him well yet, but just getting to see what kind of stuff he does on his off-days, you can tell he's working a lot towards that."
It's not just Montgomery's mental game that he's working on this spring. While Montgomery's stuff has never been in question -- he still has the ability to throw three above-average pitches with his curve potentially serving as a fourth Major League average offering -- but it's clear that he hasn't always known what to do with his repertoire.
More than anything, like with many young hard throwers, Montgomery falls in love with his fastball. Montgomery knows he needs to work on commanding that pitch better, and he realizes how that will enable his secondary stuff to play up even more. Then he has to understand how to mix in those other pitches, learning how to set up hitters so they don't always know what's coming.
"The biggest thing that stands out to me is pitch selection, what to throw in different moments," manager Joe Maddon said. "I just think to me, he seems to be pigeon holed into throwing his fastball when he might be behind in the count. He has all the ingredients, he just doesn't know what to do with them yet. As he learns how to pitch better and is less predictable, I think you're going to see the results become better."
Montgomery is working on doing things like throwing his curve in fastball counts during his first Spring Training with the Rays. With his age, size and stuff, there's still plenty of time to become what the Royals thought they had after taking him in the sandwich round back in 2008: a future big league starting pitcher.
"The toughest thing to learn is to learn how to pitch," said Montgomery, admitting to being too much of a thrower without a game plan. "It's a learning experience. It's a tough thing to do. Having that kind of focus, on every pitch, takes a lot of practice, a lot of skill. That's what I'm working on this year."