Prospect Watch: Montgomery, Bethancourt

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.


Mike Montgomery, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 24   Top 15: N/A   Top 100: N/A
Line: 0.90 ERA, 10 IP, 10.80 K/9, 3.60 BB/9, 1.00 WHIP

No longer an elite prospect, the left-handed Montgomery appears to have adapted well enough to reduced velocity to provide some future value at the major-league level.

It’s been a tough year for the Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff. The club has watched starters Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb hit the disabled list with significant injuries. All three of the young pitchers were expected to be key contributors in the Rays’ starting rotation.

One triple-A insurance arm — also one of the Rays’ 10 best prospects — Alex Colome is currently serving a 50-game suspension. That leaves the upper pitching ranks somewhat thin, which does not bode well for a club that expects to compete for a playoff berth. The triple-A Durham Bulls club features three arms that could legitimately see time filling in holes in the starting rotation this season: Enny Romero, Nate Karns and Mike Montgomery. All three hurlers are on the 40-man roster but I’ll be focusing on Montgomery for today’s Prospect Watch.

The former Kansas City Royals prospect — and 36th overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft — was once one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in the game. Unfortunately, shoulder woes have eroded his skills to a lesser degree. His breaking ball doesn’t have the same snap to it and his fastball velocity has diminished from the 90-95 mph range to more 89-91. Here is what I wrote about Montgomery last June when I saw him pitch in triple-A:

“His fastball was peaking at 91 mph and sitting 89-90. He maintained his velocity well and was still hitting 90 mph in the sixth inning but his command and control had both deserted him. He pitched consistently away to right-handed hitters with his heater and, when he did come inside with it the balls were creamed.

Despite the lack of velocity, Montgomery worked off the fastball and sprinkled in both his curveball and changeup. His curveball was not sharp on this day and he had difficulties throwing it for strikes. The southpaw struggled with the feel for his changeup early on in the contest but started throwing some wicked offerings in the third inning.”

Fast-forward 10 months and some things have changed, other things have not.

Montgomery, a lefty, was still throwing his fastball in the 89-91 mph range with his heater. However, he was commanding the inner half of the zone against right-handed hitters much more effectively than last year. The pitch appeared to have good movement in onto the hands of those hitters.

What I’d like to see, though, would be for Montgomery to leverage his 6-4 frame to create a better plane to his offerings and work down in the zone more often. He’s been much more up over the plate in the early going this season. He could survive up there when he was throwing 90-95 mph but not so at 89-91.

First time through the batting order, Montgomery had a fastball-heavy approach. The breaking ball didn’t have a very sharp break to it, although he still managed to end an at-bat with a swinging strike three on the curve. Once the lineup turned over, he started to change speeds more often — with both his breaking ball and changeup — and worked all four quadrants of the strike zone much more consistently. As a result, the hitters were guessing and went down swinging twice in the fourth inning.

Make no mistake about it, Montgomery’s days as a potential top-of-the-rotation arm are over. I’m fairly certain something went terribly wrong in that left shoulder of his during the 2010 season. However, the 24-year-old hurler still has a chance to help a big league club as a back-of-the-rotation arm or long reliever — especially if he can continue to command the inner half of the zone against tough right-handed hitters. It shouldn’t be long before the California native gets his long awaited first taste of big league action.


Christian Bethancourt, C, Atlanta Braves (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 22   Top 15: N/A   Top 100: N/A
Line: 24 PA, 0.0% BB, 37.5% K, .167/.167/.167 (.267 BABIP)

An offensive liability even at Triple-A right now, Bethancourt nevertheless has the defensive tools to provide something like league-average value at the majors. With several catching options on the parent club, however, Atlanta is unlikely to give him an opportunity for the time being.

The Atlanta Braves made some curious choices during the 2013-14 offseason. The organization lost nine-year veteran catcher Brian McCann to the New York Yankees via free agency.

To replace him, the front office slid Evan Gattis into the starting role despite the fact he spent more time in the outfield during his first MLB season and has a less than stellar reputation when he squats behind the dish. Aging backstop Gerald Laird was retained for a second season to backup the sophomore. A trade was also consummated with the Minnesota Twins that saw an underachieving, former No. 1 draft pick (Sean Gilmartin) flipped for below average defensive MLB catcher Ryan Doumit (who can also play the outfield).

Keep in mind, the Braves also have one of the best defensive catchers in all of Minor League Baseball stashed away at the triple-A level. Bethancourt, 22, may be capable of saving more runs with his glove than Gattis, Laird and Doumit could produce on offense while playing behind the plate. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface on understanding the impact that catcher framing and receiving can have on the game but the Panama native is clearly one of the best.

He’s also very successful at controlling the running game, which be of a significant benefit to the Braves, a club that has seen Gattis, Laird and Doumit combine to throw out just two of the 15 runners attempting to steal in April (as of Sunday). Still, Bethancourt will likely have to hold his own at the plate if he’s going to convince the front office to pull the trigger on the promotion.

Unfortunately, he’s off to a slow start with the stick and has stuck out nine times in 24 at-bats. He also hasn’t managed an extra base hit this year, invoking memories of his 2012 season when he posted a .291 slugging percentage in 71 double-A games. When I saw him hitting recently, Bethancourt was swinging around the ball and needs to find a quicker, less circuitous route to the ball, which will help him produce more pop and more consistent results overall.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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Hmm… I’ve actually heard that the halo effect from Bethancourt’s undoubtedly excellent arm is covering up deficiencies in his footwork and receiving, and that overall he is right now a passable but hardly exceptional defensive catcher. Can you speak to that?