What About Jordan Montgomery?

One of the stranger stories of this Yankee offseason is been how little respect Jordan Montgomery seems to have received. Last year, Montgomery finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting despite having more WAR than any American League rookie other than Aaron Judge. While not an ace, Montgomery was a more than solid back of the rotation starter going 9-7 with a 3.88 ERA as a 24 year old rookie. Montgomery was in the rotation for essentially the whole season, making 29 starts and no relief appearances while striking out almost three times as many batters as he walked. These are not Cy Young numbers, but pitchers like that have real value, especially when they are 24 year old lefties. Despite this performance during the regular season, Montgomery did not pitch at all in the postseason, while the Yankees have spent much of the offseason trying to bolster their pitching rotation and therefore limit Montgomery’s 2018 role.

This is puzzling, particularly as there has been no mention of Montgomery being injured. Instead, the Yankees have explored trades for Gerrit Cole, Michael Fulmer and Patrick Corbin. Each of these pitchers could help the Yankees. Cole has a high ceiling and could become an excellent pitcher. Fulmer has been very good through his first two years in the big leagues. Corbin is solid, but not much more. Of these three pitchers, only Fulmer is clearly better than Montgomery. The trade discussions with Detroit appear to be stalled so it is not likely Fulmer will be in pinstripes anytime soon. Montgomery’s age and contract status make him even more appealing relative to these three pitchers as he is a few months older than Fulmer and is younger than the other two.

Last week, Hot Stove League rumors linked the Yankees to Yu Darvish. While it seems unlikely, the rumor makes sense. First, it wouldn’t be the offseason if the Yankees weren’t somehow seen to be pursuing the most expensive free agent available. Additionally, Darvish is an ace who, presuming he stops tipping his pitches in big games, would have a big impact on the team, but would cost money but no prospects. 

Despite these efforts to bolster their pitching rotation, the situation is not at all dire. If the Yankees make no other moves, they will go into the season with their fifth starter being a 25 year old lefty who pitched 155.1 innings with an ERA+ of 116 last year. Many teams will enter the season with a pitcher with similar 2017 numbers as there number two starter. On the other hand, Montgomery is 25, which is a bit on the old side for pitchers who go on to greatness. He also was never a very highly touted prospect, despite being a fourth round draft pick. All this suggests that unlike Cole of Fulmer, Montgomery’s ceiling is not very high. 

Montgomery may never develop much beyond where he was last year, although that cannot be ruled out entirely. Even if he stays more or less where he was in 2017, he still brings real value to the Yankees, particularly given that he does not earn a big salary. All teams need back of the rotation starters to quietly take the ball every fifth day and keep their team in the game. Some teams, the 1998 Yankees come to mind, have very strong top to bottom rotations, but many championship teams, the 2017 Astros are a good example, do not. If Montgomery pitches as he did in 2017 in 2018, the Yankees will be getting more than enough from their number five starter.

The hesitancy the Yankees have shown in handing Montgomery a larger role for the 2018 season suggests that Brian Cashman, Aaron Boone and others have less confidence in Montgomery than his numbers suggest. It is certainly possible that Montgomery has a minor injury that is causing concern for the Yankee brass, but there have been no reports of that. Similarly, Montgomery handled his first big league season well. He struggled in July as he was 1-2 with a 5.90 ERA in his five starts that month, but ended strong going 2-0 with a 2.49 ERA over his last five starts of the year. Some players are perennially under appreciated because they don’t look the part, but for Montgomery who is 6’6” and 225 lbs, that is not the case either. The Yankees may fear that Montgomery is simply not as good as his 2017 numbers suggest and that an upgrade is essential. That fear should be balanced against the real possibility that in seeking to upgrade the back of the rotation, the Yankees include him in a swap for a pitcher with a bigger name but comparable ability and see Montgomery continue his solid pitching, at a very affordable price for another team.

Photo: cc/ Keith Allison