By Jon Weisman
The debate over Frankie Montas’ Dodger future began the day he arrived: starter or reliever.
If you’re asking Montas to settle the question, here’s what you’ll get: Whatever the Dodgers want.
“I always say, ‘You’ve still got to do your job, if you’re in the bullpen or if you’re starting a game.’” Montas told us Saturday at FanFest. “It doesn’t matter what role you’re going to do. And for me right now, I feel comfortable in both.”
To be clear, Montas is confident that he can be a Major League starter– and is driven toward that goal. Starting 23 games for Double-A Birmingham in 2015, Montas struck out 8.7 per nine innings, while allowing only 7.2 hits — including a seven-inning no-hitter June 9 at Tennessee — with a 2.97 ERA.
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Somewhat amazingly, he allowed only four home runs in 127 innings last year (three in 112 with Birmingham). Among Double-A pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2015, only two had a better HR/9 than Montas.
He did walk nearly four batters per nine innings.
“Everybody’s talking about my fastball command and my changeup (as concerns),” Montas said. “I’ve been working on it – I’ve been working really hard. It’s started getting better. I’ve started having more feel for the changeup. My fastball command has been better too.”
One thing in Montas’ favor is that he isn’t inventing a changeup from thin air.
“I used to throw a really good changeup, but I was like, ‘I don’t really need it,’ because I have a good fastball and a good slider. I was just kind of forgetting about it.”
— Dodger Insider (@DodgerInsider) January 29, 2016
After five relief appearances (eight innings, 10 baserunners, 10 strikeouts) during last year’s September debut with the White Sox, Montas made his first career MLB start September 23 against Detroit — and Justin Verlander. He gave up a two-run homer run to Victor Martinez in the first inning, followed by four runs in the third inning, and said Saturday that he had put too much pressure on himself.
His second appearance, in the 2015 season finale, threatened more of the same. He gave up a run in the first inning and loaded the bases with one out.
Beginning with a Jefry Marte strikeout to end the first, Montas retired 10 of the remaining 11 batters he faced, striking out six. His four-inning stint left him looking for more in 2016.
“I love being a starter,” said Montas, who turns 23 in March and is ranked No. 95 among MLB.com’s top 100 prospects. “I love starting games. I love winning games. I love going long in the game, throwing a lot of innings, but like I said, I’m just gonna do what they want me to do. If they want me to play in the bullpen, I’m just gonna try to get that job in the bullpen.”
All of this circles back to what Dodger president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said the day Montas was acquired in December.
“Our scouts feel like his fastball-slider combo is one of the best in the minor leagues, and we feel like he’s got a great chance to develop as a really good Major League starting pitcher,” Friedman said. “As we go through it and get a chance to be around him on a daily basis, it’ll be interesting to get a better feel for where he is with the changeup and his ability to manipulate the slider. But (we) feel like he’s got a really good chance to be a really good Major League starting pitcher, and if not, we feel like he can be an impact bullpen arm.”