For the fifth time in the last five seasons, the Yankees lost a member of their starting rotation to Tommy John surgery last year. Jordan Montgomery, who exited his May 1st start with elbow tightness, joined Michael Pineda (2017), Nathan Eovaldi (2016), Chase Whitley (2015), and Ivan Nova (2014). That’s some rotten elbow luck.
Prior to his injury Montgomery made six starts and pitched to a 3.62 ERA (4.22 FIP) in 27.1 innings. His strikeout rate (22.2% to 19.8%) dropped and his walk rate (7.9% to 10.3%) increased from his rookie year, though it was only 27.1 innings, so it’s tough to tell what was noise and what is meaningful. The curse of small sample sizes.
Montgomery, 26, he had his surgery on June 7th. With the exception of one minor little setback over the winter — “Just general soreness. I feel like I’m just hypersensitive to everything in my elbow right now,” he said to Coley Harvey last month — his Tommy John surgery rehab is on schedule. He’s due to return later this summer.
The prospect of a healthy Montgomery returning to give the Yankees a midseason lift is exciting. He was solid during his rookie year, occasionally spectacular, and there’s never such a thing as too much rotation depth. Another warm body to give the regular starters a little breather down the stretch would be welcome. Let’s preview Montgomery’s partial season.
When will he return, exactly?
The plan is sometime after the All-Star break. Montgomery started his throwing program a few weeks ago — he was making 50 throws at 90 feet when Spring Training opened — and we haven’t heard any updates recently, though that’s not unusual. Last month Montgomery told Pete Caldera he would throw in the bullpen sometime this month, and rejoin the Yankees in mid-July. “I have my sights set on that,” he said.
Returning to the mound sometime this month does not mean Montgomery will enter Spring Training mode. Tommy John surgery rehab includes several weeks of mound work before game action. The first few weeks are all fastballs too. It’ll be a few weeks until breaking balls and changeups are introduced. Montgomery starting mound work this month puts him in track to see game action sometime in May.
Minor league rehab stints for position players are 20 days maximum. They’re 30 days maximum for pitchers, but, if a pitcher is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, teams can request another 30 days and MLB always grants it. Bet on that happening with Montgomery. The Yankees will want him to get as much game action as possible. Remember, the goal is not only to get stretched out to 100 pitches. Montgomery has to get his mechanics back in place and regain feel for his pitches. I’d consider a return sooner than mid-July to be pretty aggressive.
“I’ve got four more months to get as strong as I can and try to work on anything I want to. My mechanics, clean those out, get my legs stronger,” Montgomery said to Harvey last month. “Just to get in better shape and come back a whole new pitcher is the plan … Hopefully in four months, right when I’m done with my rehab starts, then I’ll be back (with the Yankees).”
What happens when he comes back?
Worry about it when the time comes. Seriously. There’s no point in wondering where Montgomery will slot into the rotation when he returns when we’re still (at least) four months away from that happening. It’s too far away and lots can and will change between now and then. If the rotation is healthy and productive, send Montgomery to Triple-A. If there are injuries and an open spot, stick him in the rotation. That’s it. This is the epitome of a “figure it out when the time comes” situation. It’s a boring answer, I know, but it is the only possible answer right now.
Will he be the same Montgomery?
There have been many studies examining performance after Tommy John surgery. The results of those studies often conflict, and the end result is a great big shrug emoji. Some guys return better than ever (because they were pitching with a damaged elbow so long). Some guys return same as always (because the elbow ligament just snapped one day). Some guys never get back to where they were (because they lose a little stuff or command with the new ligament).
I will say this much: Montgomery can’t really afford to lose any stuff or command. He’s never been a big velocity guy (91.9 mph average fastball in his MLB career), so he needs sharp secondary pitches and good control to be effective. Less anything — less velocity, less break, less control — would negatively impact Montgomery more than it would, say, Michael Pineda, who had stuff to spare. Montgomery’s margin for error isn’t very big. Reducing it any further would be bad news.
Chances are Montgomery will return from Tommy John surgery fine and dandy because most pitchers return from Tommy John surgery and go back to being themselves. Some guys, like Matt Moore, are never the same and that’s always a risk. The odds are in Montgomery’s favor though. An immediate return to No. 4 starter level would be wonderful. If Montgomery doesn’t get all the way back there until 2020, that’s okay too.
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I can already hear Brian Cashman, Aaron Boone, and everyone else talking about Montgomery’s return being like a trade deadline pickup. Get ready for it. It’s coming. My hot take for the day is Montgomery is probably going to end up making more minor league starts than Major League starts this season, partly because he still has a long rehab stint ahead of him, and also because he’s not one of the team’s five best starters when everyone’s healthy. Will everyone be healthy? Probably not, but I hope so.
Whatever Montgomery gives the Yankees this season gravy. That’s how they have to look at it. I know it’s easy to dream on Montgomery returning in mid-July and being the knight in shining armor who saves the rotation, but that’s probably not realistic, nor is it fair. Expecting a pitcher coming off a major arm surgery to have an immediate impact is no way for a contender to build a rotation. Montgomery’s full return to form is likely to happen in 2020. Anything he gives the Yankees in 2019 is a bonus.