MESA, Ariz. — Frankie Montas comes across soft-spoken and humble in conversation, and his smooth delivery on the mound is just as subtle.
It isn’t until the baseball leaves his hand that you realize what all the buzz is about.
The A’s young right-hander showed a glimpse of his explosive stuff Wednesday, catching manager Bob Melvin’s attention during a roughly 30-pitch bullpen session in Oakland’s first official workout of the season.
“For a guy that throws that hard, you would think there would be what looks like a little bit more effort,” Melvin said. “It looks like he’s just playing catch, and the ball is just screaming in there. I think that’s part of what makes him so good. It’s an easy motion and all of a sudden the ball just jumps on you.”
Acquired from the Dodgers as part of the prospect package for Josh Reddick and Rich Hill, Montas enjoyed an outstanding Arizona Fall League season, pumping a fastball that has been clocked as high as 102 miles per hour. Couple that with a slider that’s shown signs of an effective putaway pitch, and a changeup he’s woking hard to develop, and the A’s believe they’ve got quite the future talent.
The question: Will the 23-year-old Montas eventually join the rotation, or is the smoke he throws best suited for late-inning relief? The A’s aren’t making that call right now, but Billy Beane, head of their baseball operations, made it clear what role the club would prefer.
“I think ideally you’d like it if he was a starter,” Beane said. “That being said, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that he could serve a role in the ‘pen as well. It’s one of the things we’re gonna be discussing through the spring.”
One consideration is that Montas threw just 16 innings last year in the minors because of two separate rib injuries. Because of that, he’ll be on a pretty strict innings limit this season, and if he’s used as a starter, he’ll hit that limit much sooner than he would in the bullpen.
Montas, ranked by Baseball America as the A’s No. 5 prospect, is just happy to be healthy. He suffered a fractured rib cage that led to him having one of his upper ribs removed last February (Montas motions near his right collarbone to describe where the pain was). During that operation, doctors noticed a crack in another rib on his right side, but Montas says they believed it would heal in due time and not be an issue.
It kept bothering him, and he returned to the disabled list in mid-June and missed the rest of the season.
Montas was in so much pain that it hurt when he played with his 1-year-old son, Michael.
“It was actually affecting me during my day,” he said. “Sometimes I’d wake up and I couldn’t breathe right.”
The A’s felt comfortable enough to pull the trigger on the Aug. 1 trade with Los Angeles that also netted Oakland two other promising right-handers in Jharel Cotton and Grant Holmes. Once recovered, Montas posted a 0.53 ERA in the Arizona Fall League, allowing just one earned run and seven hits in 17 innings.
His velocity stood out, but A’s Double-A manager Ryan Christenson — who also skippered Montas’ AFL squad — was impressed with Montas’ dedication to improving his changeup.
“We tried to mandate, throw so many changeups per inning, and he did,” Christenson said. “He committed to it. It’s becoming a good pitch, that changeup is.” Since originally signing with the Red Sox in 2009, Montas — a Dominican Republic native — also has committed to learning English, and he now has a fluent grasp on the language. That caught Cotton by surprise when he first met Montas during the Dodgers’ FanFest last season.
“I was in the elevator and I started talking my Spanish to him, and he was like ‘Papi, I speak English,’” Cotton recalled.
Perhaps Montas, who has already been traded three times, can find a home with the A’s. He’s working to refine his fastball command along with developing that changeup.
“I’m trying to be more a pitcher than a thrower,” he said. “Like everyone here, I’m trying to make the 25-man roster, but I actually want to learn about pitching with all these guys here. There’s some very good pitchers in here. I feel like watching them pitch and throw bullpens, I can learn a lot.”