When Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto acquired reliever Rafael Montero from Texas this past offseason, part of the attraction, beyond Montero’s solid 2019 season featuring a 2.48 ERA and then a perfect 8-for-8 showing in save situations in the shortened 2020 season, was the two years of club control remaining before he became a free agent.
With a limited budget, Dipoto seemed to have secured a cost-friendly reliever – $2.25 million in 2021.
But with Montero’s latest suboptimal outing in a season filled with them, that potential value of club control and keeping him beyond this season has been nullified by poor performances to the point where Seattle might not keep him past the All-Star break.
Tuesday, Montero served up a mammoth, hope-crushing three-run homer to Toronto’s Bo Bichette in the sixth inning of a tie game, squelching the growing possibility of a Seattle victory in what would ultimately be a 9-3 defeat against the Blue Jays in a game played in Buffalo, New York.
Down 3-0 going into the top of the sixth and struggling to do much against Toronto starter Robbie Ray, Seattle got back-to-back singles from J.P. Crawford and Mitch Haniger. With one out, Ty France ambushed a first-pitch 94 mph fastball that stayed on the inside half of the plate, sending a towering fly ball over the wall in left-center for a game-tying three-run homer.
France’s eighth homer re-ignited the energy in the Mariners’ dugout and completely changed the complexion of a game that seemed destined for defeat.
“Ty hit the heck out of the ball and it was a big, big swing in the game,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Momentum-wise, you feel like you’re in a good spot there.”
But Montero needed little time to change that momentum.
Brought in to replace starter Chris Flexen in the sixth, Montero gave up a leadoff infield single on a 2-2 changeup. He got a brief reprieve when Reese McGuire grounded into a force out. But a single from Marcus Semien, who had three hits and drove in five runs, brought Bichette to the plate.
Montero hung a 1-0 slider that Bichette demolished for his 15th homer of the season. It was Montero’s third consecutive appearance in which he allowed at least two runs to score, and the fifth time in his past seven appearances.
“He made some mistakes,” Servais said. “If you go back to the last homestand, he actually threw the ball really well in some big innings for us there. Tonight, we were actually lined up with some pretty good matchups for him. Unfortunately, he made the mistake to Bichette. That was not a good pitch and one that he’d certainly like back. He didn’t execute it and it wasn’t in the game plan. That was not what we were supposed to do there, and we paid the price.”
Inability to execute and also shrugging off a game plan for a dangerous hitter isn’t something that endears a pitcher to a manager or general manager.
In 35 appearances this season, Montero has a 5-2 record with four holds, seven saves, six blown saves and a 6.75 ERA. He’s allowed an earned run to score in 16 of those appearances. In 34 2/3 innings, he’s walked 12 and struck out 29. Opponents have a .284/.358/.411 slash line against him with 40 hits.
While Dipoto knew he had to supplement his bullpen and was severely hamstrung by a lack of a payroll budget, it appears this move isn’t going to provide expected dividends. And while relievers are mercurial and Montero’s shown flashes of effectiveness, it’s difficult to see him being on the team next year or even by the end of the season at his current performance level.
In that trade with Texas, the Mariners sent two youngsters, pitcher Jose Corniell and infielder Andres Mesa, to the Rangers. Corniell was rated as the No. 22 prospect in the Mariners organization by Baseball America and the No. 24 prospect by MLB Pipeline. He was ranked as the No. 100 prospect of his international free-agent class, signing as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic a year ago for a $630,000 signing bonus. Mesa, who was a player to be named later in the trade, signed for a $500,000.
The fear for Mariners fans is that Corniell somehow becomes the next Freddy Peralta, who was traded to the Brewers in exchange for first baseman Adam Lind. Peralta was 19 at the time and now has a 7-2 record and 2.16 ERA in 15 starts and one relief appearance this season.
While designating an established reliever for assignment isn’t something teams do impulsively, Montero is out of minor-league assignments and the Mariners are slowly running out of ways to get usage out of him. In a bullpen that doesn’t have many set roles, he still doesn’t seem to fit any role given his recent performances.
Once Montero did his damage to the Mariners’ victory hopes, Semien, who had a game reminiscent of his past performances with the Oakland A’s, smoked a three-run homer off Will Vest in the seventh inning.
“Our old nemesis Marcus Semien showed up right in the middle of everything tonight,” Servais said. “We’ve certainly seen a lot of Semien here over the last few years with Oakland. And he’s always been a thorn in our side. He had some really quality at-bats tonight.”
Flexen gave the Mariners five innings, allowing three runs on seven hits with three walks and two strikeouts. Semien had a big two-run double on a ground ball just past Kyle Seager with two outs in the second inning.
“That’s kind of how the ball rolled today,” Flexen said. “I made some good pitches at times and the one hit that was really barreled was (Lourdes) Gurriel’s, but all the other ones were kind of weakly hit and just found holes. It just wasn’t going to go our way today.”