Sometimes, pitchers simply force you to say goodbye.
Keider Montero got the heave-ho last week at West Michigan, after he had thrown with such fury and finesse the Tigers saw no choice but to ship him to Double-A Erie.
Neither party was terribly bothered.
Montero, 22, had simply outgrown high-Single A hitters, as evidenced by his last two Whitecaps starts, April 20 and April 26, when in each game he pitched four innings, allowing for those collective eight innings only three hits, while striking 15 and walking none.
“Keider’s stuff is as good as we have in this organization,” said Ryan Garko, speaking Sunday about a pitcher who this week will make his first start for the SeaWolves.
“Look at those last two outings: all strikes, no walks, and just filling up the zone with all four of his pitches to all four quadrants.”
As for those four pitches — his manager at West Michigan, Brayan Pena, offered details during a weekend conversation.
“He’s a complete pitcher when he uses that powerful arsenal,” Pena said, speaking of a four-seam fastball that runs “97, 98” and a “plus slider” that together made a hash of Midwest League hitters in Montero’s last two starts.
“He was just attacking and dominating the strike zone.”
Montero, who was signed in 2016 out of Santa Teresa del Tuy, Venezuela, long has been considered one of the Tigers’ better bets to become that rare commodity — an exceptional international talent who might help in a big way Detroit’s big-league team.
But even when he pitched two years ago at West Michigan, armed with a curveball judged by Baseball America to be the organization’s best breaking pitch, he was putting together so-so numbers. They continued in 2022 at West Michigan as his bosses became a bit bothered that a particular pitcher might not be following tightly his coaches’ orders.
Some things have since changed as Scott Harris arrived at Comerica Park to put his stamp on the Tigers as the team’s new director of operations — a position that in earlier MLB eras was invariably termed “general manager.”
New communication techniques have been put into place, in part courtesy of technology. Pena says he has seen the difference in how Latino players such as Montero began more easily processing input, thanks to material presented in a Spanish-speaking player’s vernacular.
“It wasn’t so much listening to coaches,” Pena said, referring to some of last year’s overviews on Montero. “But, sometimes, it takes a little time, especially for a young Latino player. Definitely, now, the communication message is clearer. Players better understand the communication, in their own language.”
Couple some enhanced reading with help delivered by pitching coach Dan Ricabal, and headed by pitching overseer Gabe Ribas, and, that quickly, a man 6-foot-1 and still a trim 145 pounds, is looking more like the guy his bosses saw sprouting in those earlier years.
“A lot of credit to his coaches,” Pena said. “They sat down with Montero, he was able to execute a program we felt would work for him, and then he took care of business.
“It’s been fun to watch him earn that promotion.”
He’s back — and hitting. And that could be the best news from April for a Tigers staff working to make Dillon Dingler ship-shape as he fights to be taken seriously as a future Tigers catcher.
Dingler had missed the past month-plus after meniscus surgery on his right knee. But he began a rehab stint two weeks ago at Single-A Lakeland and has gotten A-grades, as his eight-game start (heading into Sunday) showed: .448 batting average, four home runs, 1.474 OPS, with four strikeouts and five walks.
Handsome stuff from a man who, at 24, might be considered the most pivotal prospect in the Tigers system. He’ll be rejoining Double-A Erie this week.
“He’s healthy and looking strong,” Garko said. “He’s really looked good in this rehab assignment.”
Erie will reveal how much might have changed since last season, particularly with respect to those 143 strikeouts in 107 games that left the Tigers front office a bit glum in 2022.
The parties, Dingler included, knew something had to change. With that in mind, a few adjustments were introduced during the offseason, particularly with respect to getting Dingler’s lower body more involved as a means to chop down the Ks.
It’s a small window, those early games at Lakeland, but they also might be a peek into one player’s progress.
“Just small adjustments with some of his moves,” Garko said. “The changes have been small and subtle, but I think the early returns are good. This will be the next challenge for him (Erie).
“But we’re excited to see how he does.”
Montero aside, it has appeared, on the surface anyway, that the Tigers might be more of a slower-boat operation than in past years in moving kids up the minor-league chain.
That’s essentially true, Garko confirmed Sunday. It’s akin to that old Paul Masson wine jingle boasting that no wine would be served before its time.
And it’s a philosophy that flows from Harris, the Tigers’ new front-office chief.
“We want to turn over every stone on every player in the system,” Garko said Sunday, explaining that if any development edge can be gained at a current minor-league level, the Tigers prefer being comprehensive in getting that player or pitcher fully groomed before promotions are made.
“I think Scott has really opened it up and challenged us to work harder to make sure we go down a thorough path before we make a decision we can’t undo.
“We want to make sure adjustments — maybe change an arm-slot, or change a grip — are made at the proper level so a talented prospect can have a nice major-league career.”
It doesn’t mean players are being held back. It doesn’t imply that ripe fruit will be left on the vine.
It’s simply an effort, Garko said, to fully equip players ahead of moving them to a more sophisticated level where the competition will be challenge enough for an advancing talent.
Around the horn
Even with his bosses careful about rapid deliveries, among pitchers pressing for promotion is West Michigan right-hander Tyler Mattison.
Mattison, a fourth-rounder (2021) from Bryant University, had pitched in seven games through Sunday, rolling up an 0.92 WHIP, courtesy of 12 innings, seven hits, 21 strikeouts, and four walks.
“He’s been throwing the ball extremely well,” Pena said of a man, 23, who is 6-4, 235. “He’s been 97, 98 — powerful from our bullpen.”
… Pena also raves about another right-handed reliever, Blake Holub, 6-6, 230 pounds, and owner, in Pena’s words, of a “wipeout slider.” Holub has pitched in eight games spanning seven innings. His numbers: 0.68 ERA, 13.1 innings, eight hits, 17 strikeouts, two walks.
“It’s about talent and maturity,” said Pena, who is more than pleased with the back-end options he now has in Holub, as well as Mattison. “We want to put them in different situations and see how they can develop.
“Hopefully, they can help us in Detroit, sooner than later.”
Holub was a 15th-round grab in 2021 from St. Edward’s University.
… Colt Keith keeps ripping Double-A pitching: .286 through Sunday’s game, with three homers, a .358 on-base mark, and .822 OPS. The only serious question about Keith, 21, and a left-handed stick, is where he’ll play. Third base is his official position but unlikely to be a regular big-league option. The Tigers will be sorting out Keith’s positional future during these coming weeks and months at Erie.
Keith could, later this year, be an answer at Toledo once Justyn-Henry Malloy is called to Detroit, as appears imminent. Malloy, 23, and a right-handed hitter and third baseman/outfielder, has been wrecking Triple-A pitching: .344 batting average, four homers, 1.001 OPS.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sports reporter.