There’s no better time for Frankie Montas to be part of a starting rotation battle than right now. The right-hander was a huge part of the A’s playoff run last year. He compiled a 3.88 ERA in 11 starts and displayed the best command of his career.
But perhaps taking precedence over his solid 2018 numbers is his organizational situation. Montas, 25, is out of minor-league options. If the A’s try to send him down to the minor leagues, they must place him on waivers and risk potentially losing him to another club.
It’s unlikely a pitcher like Montas, who is still young and can light up the radar gun with a fastball near triple digits, can sneak through the waiver process without a team putting in a claim. So the A’s are going to give him every chance to make the roster.
“You’d hate to lose a guy that’s as talented as him,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We hope he has a good camp and somehow we can keep him.”
Montas made a good impression in his first Cactus League outing with two shutout innings in Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Diamondbacks. He escaped a bases-loaded jam in the second by getting Ildemaro Vargas to ground out and became the first A’s pitcher this spring to not allow a run over a start.
“He used to be a guy who relied on his fastball, and today, he had a good breaking ball and split,” Melvin said. “I think that’s going to serve him well. He looked confident on the mound. I liked it.”
After improving his variance in velocity by integrating his slider more often last year, Montas is now adding a splitter to his repertoire. He tested it against the Diamondbacks. Six of Montas’ 34 pitches were splitters, including his strikeout of David Peralta to end the first.
“I’ve been working on it all spring,” Montas said. “Even in the offseason, I was working on it. Just trying to add something else to my stuff.”
The idea to add the pitch was a joint decision by Montas and pitching coach Scott Emerson. Montas experimented with the pitch during bullpen sessions last season but made the commitment to actually utilize it in games this offseason.
Montas used a two-seam fastball and slider as his primary pitches last season. He hopes the slider can help him keep hitters guessing for longer periods of time over the course of a start.
“I just feel like adding something else will help me,” Montas said. “The hitters will have to worry about three pitches now.”
Several A’s pitchers are vying for a spot in the starting rotation. But Montas and Chris Bassitt could be ahead of the pack, given their 2018 campaigns.
The bullpen is likely settled. That could leave the group that includes Montas, Bassitt, Paul Blackburn and top prospect Jesus Luzardo possibly competing for one open spot.
Montas understands what he’s up against this spring. He’s gone from the promising prospect acquired from the Dodgers in exchange for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick in 2016 to a pitcher on the bubble. His spot is not guaranteed. But he’s ready to fight for one, whether it be in the rotation or bullpen.
“Everyone that comes to spring training has to prove themselves,” Montas said. “It’s a tough spot for me, but I don’t really think about it. I’m just going to come in and compete. Whatever they decide is their decision, and I’ll try to help the team with whatever I can do.”
A’s starting pitchers seem to be getting on track. In addition to Montas’ scoreless outing, Blackburn also looked impressive Monday. The right-hander turned in two scoreless innings, allowing one hit with no walks and three strikeouts.
“He got the ball down after allowing the first hit and pitched pretty well after that,” Melvin said. “Much better than his first outing.”
Khris Davis (left calf strain) took batting practice and got some at-bats in a simulated game at the A’s minor-league complex.
“He felt good,” Melvin said. “But again, we’re not in a rush with him.”
Matt Chapman also played in the simulated game and is expected to make his spring debut Tuesday as the designated hitter.
Franklin Barreto extended his hit streak to three games after going 1 for 3 with a walk. His Cactus League batting average is .444.
Dustin Fowler launched his first home run of the spring. It was a solo shot to right field off Matt Andriese to put the A’s ahead 2-0 in the fourth.