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Is Mark Montgomery the Heir to Mariano Rivera's Yankees Closer Throne?

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Is Mark Montgomery the Heir to Mariano Rivera's Yankees Closer Throne?
Courtesy of MiLB.com

As I traveled out to Arizona last weekend to scout the Arizona Fall League’s Rising Stars Game, there was admittedly only a few pitchers I was genuinely excited to see.

One name toward the top of my very short list was New York Yankees’ right-hander Mark Montgomery, a player who I’ve grown increasingly fond of over the last year.

After he posted a 0.89 ERA and 14.2 K/9 at Longwood University in 2011, the Yankees made Montgomery their 11th-round draft pick in June and signed him for $65,000 shortly thereafter.

Assigned to Short-Season Staten Island to begin his career, the right-hander’s ability to miss bats was immediately apparent as he posted a 2.25 ERA and 22.50 K/9 in four innings.

Montgomery was subsequently promoted to Low-A Charleston where he continued to dominate to the tune of a 1.85 ERA with 14 saves and 15.16 K/9 in 24.1 innings.

Between the two levels, he finished the season with a 1.91 ERA, 25 saves, 6.4 BB/9 and 16.2 K/9 in 28.1 innings (26 games). If there was one knock on Montgomery, though, it was that his 4.1 BB/9 left something to be desired.

After dazzling in his professional debut, it was obvious that the Yankees had found something special in Montgomery. So it came as no surprise that they handed him an aggressive promotion to High-A Tampa (Florida State League) to begin his full-season debut.

The right-hander exceeded all expectations once again, registering a 4-1 record with 14 saves, a 1.34 ERA, 5.1 H/9 and 13.6 K/9 in 40.1 innings (31 games). Not only did Montgomery improve his H/9 and K/9 rates, but the right-hander also lowered his walk rate (3.6 BB/9) against more advanced competition.

His ongoing dominance prompted the organization to promote him once more, this time to Double-A Trenton of the Eastern League—his fourth level in two years. And, unsurprisingly, Montgomery continued to thrive, posting a 3-1 record with a 1.88 ERA, 4.5 H/9, 14.2 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in 24 innings (15 games).

Despite having to face more advanced and experienced hitters, the right-hander finished his full-season debut with a 7-2 record, 15 saves, 1.54 ERA, 0.886 WHIP, 4.9 H/9, 13.8 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9.

At 5’11”, 205 pounds, Montgomery doesn’t possess the power-pitcher’s frame that one might assume based upon his outstanding stats over the last two seasons.

When working from the stretch exclusively, he starts from a closed setup much like Jason Motte, which, in turn, adds to the already present cross-body deception in his delivery without impeding his overall command.

The right-hander boasts a fastball that’s far from overpowering, registering in the 91-92 mph range, and touched 93 when I saw him last Saturday in the Rising Stars Game. However, he’s aggressive with the pitch, fearlessly commanding it inside to both right- and left-handed hitters.

But what has made Montgomery so successful thus far is his slider—a pitch that I consider to be a present plus-plus offering that makes even the best of hitters look foolish. Thrown anywhere from 83-86 mph, the pitch has exceptional tilt as well as a distinct pace and sharp, downer shape. By all standards, it’s a legitimate out pitch that would have played at the major-league level last season.

In the Rising Stars Game, Montgomery threw the pitch almost exclusively in his lone inning of work, and used it to strike out the side essentially uncontested. Let me put it this way: It’s one of those sliders where the batter knows it’s coming but still swings through it.

As the Yankees prepare for the 2013 season, they already know that they will be without free-agent Rafael Soriano, who served as the team’s closer in the wake of Mariano Rivera’s season-ending knee surgery.

Although Rivera has announced the he’ll be returning to the mound in 2013 despite mixed rumors regarding his retirement, there’s a chance that he won’t dominate in the manner that has made him the greatest closer in baseball history.

Other than David Robertson, who struggled in save situations in 2012, the Yankees lack an internal heir to the throne for the 2014 season—assuming that Rivera and the Yankees agree to a one-year deal this offseason.

In my opinion, Montgomery is a strong candidate for a spot in the bullpen out of spring training. Given his overwhelming success over the last two seasons, would more time in Double or Triple-A even make a difference?

He’s a bulldog on the mound and already has the late-inning reliever mindset, so why not fast-track him to the major leagues? The Yankees did the exact same thing with Robertson, who was promoted to the majors in his second full minor-league campaign and posted eerily similar numbers along the way.

Could Montgomery be the Yankees closer in a few years? It’s entirely possible. But until then, he’ll start with a less glamorous but equally important role in the team’s bullpen at some point during the 2013 season.

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