November 17: Montero’s contract will see him earn $11.5MM in all three years, per Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle.
November 12: Rafael Montero and the Astros are in agreement on a three-year, $34.5MM deal, reports Jeff Passan of ESPN. Montero is the third elite reliever to fall off the board early, after the Padres re-signed Robert Suarez and the Mets held on to Edwin Diaz.
It’s a remarkable deal considering Montero has amassed just 0.1 bWAR over his career and had a 6.39 ERA just in 2021, but speaks to how good he’s looked since landing in Houston, and the early value teams are placing on high-end relief pitching.
Montero, 32, tossed 68 1/3 innings out of Houston’s pen this year in addition to six innings thrown late last year after coming over from Seattle, posting a 2.18 ERA in that time with a 26.8% strikeout rate and an 8.6% walk rate. He’d posted an ugly 7.27 ERA (albeit with decent peripherals) in Seattle last year, before the Astros acquired him as part of the Kendall Graveman deal. In Houston, he’s leaned more heavily on his fastball, and cut back on his sinker and slider usage. Hitters have found it incredibly difficult to square up his pitches, and he gave up just three home runs all year (and one more in the playoffs) and ranked in the 91st percentile for average exit velocity.
It’s certainly worth nothing that this isn’t the first time Montero has had a bit of success, only to crash not long after. The Rangers inked him to a minor league deal in 2019 after four unsuccessful years with the Mets that concluded with Tommy John surgery prior to the ’18 campaign. He turned into a valuable member of the Rangers bullpen that year, throwing 29 innings of 2.28 ERA ball. He regressed a bit in 2020, but the Rangers were still able to flip him to the Mariners for a couple of prospects – Andres Mesa and Jose Corniell – prior to the 2021 campaign, but things would unravel for him in Seattle.
While it’s easy to look at that 2019 season with the Rangers and draw similarities to his past season with the Astros in that it’s an isolated strong season amongst a wider portfolio of poor output, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he’s turned a corner for good. For instance, in 2019 his peripherals were far less impressive than his actual output, and it was over a much smaller sample size (29 innings against 74 1/3 in Houston). Ultimately though, dishing out any sort of multi-year free agency deal to relievers comes with a large degree of risk, and given how tough relievers’ future performance is to predict, there’s no guarantees Montero performs like he did in 2022 over the life of this deal.
This deal locks up a key contributor from their World Series winning team, but it’s curious to see a major deal like this done one day after the team moved on from their general manager. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle reported that assistant GM Andrew Ball and senior director of baseball strategy Bill Firkus are running the day-to-day operations for the Astros after the departure of James Click, although Rome adds that that doesn’t necessarily mean those two were responsible for the Montero deal.
Houston’s projected payroll now sits at $164MM per RosterResource, about $15MM shy of their 2022 mark. There’s every chance they bring back Justin Verlander, while they could seek additions at center field, catcher and first base, so there’s a strong possibility their payroll comfortably eclipses the $179MM mark from 2022.
Their bullpen was one of the strengths of their championship roster this past season, and with the likes of Ryan Pressly, Bryan Abreu, Ryne Stanek, Hector Neris and the now-returning Montero it’s shaping up to be one of the best in baseball again.
It also bodes well for other top relievers on the market. Montero’s $34.5MM deal follows on from Suarez’ five-year, $46MM contract with the Padres and Diaz’s record-breaking five-year, $102MM deal with the Mets. On the whole, relievers are being paid handsomely to kick off free agency this year, and the agents of pitchers like Taylor Rogers and Kenley Jansen will surely be pointing teams to these deals as price points when going into negotiations.
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