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Can Jordan Montgomery steal a rotation spot?

Nobody expected it, but prospect Jordan Montgomery might pitch his way into the Yankees’ rotation.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a common theme in every ‘position battles’ article—each competition has a few clear candidates listed, organized into three categories: “The Favorite,” “Next in Line,” and “The Dark Horse.” In nearly all cases, there’s practically no chance the dark horse player even comes close to winning the job, let alone actually stealing playing time away from the more well-known candidates. Every now and then, though, that under-the-radar player blows away expectations and finds a way to win the job, turning into one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. While it’s rare to see this happen, there’s one player on the Yankees who could become one of the few dark horse candidates to steal the spotlight: Jordan Montgomery.

While Montgomery isn’t nearly as well-known as some other players in the Yankees’ rotation battle royale—he makes Luis Severino, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Cessa look like household names—the southpaw isn’t exactly an unknown quantity. Montgomery has been successful for the Yankees since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, putting up excellent results at all levels as he climbed the minor-league ladder. Lacking a true out pitch and merely a fringy heater, scouts have never seen him as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter, though the 6’6” hurler has looked like a completely different pitcher this Spring.

To start, Montgomery has shown an increase in fastball velocity, topping out at 95-96 mph in his latest outing after sitting in the low 90s last season between Double-A and Triple-A. It’s hard to tell if that uptick will remain in the regular season, but it’s a promising development at the very least. While we haven’t seen a fundamental change to his repertoire, Montgomery’s shown an excellent ability to command his deep array of offerings for strikes thus far. Armed with a four-seam and two-seam fastball, along with a changeup, slider, and curveball, Montgomery can attack hitters with quite a few weapons, a strategy that was particularly effective in his latest start. One unique feature of Montgomery—something harder to quantify but easy to see—is his unorthodox delivery, creating outstanding plane on his pitches thanks to a sky-high release. That special arm slot, which is only made more effective by his height, should do wonders to help him avoid something that’s plagued other young starters in New York: home runs.

Montgomery struck out eight batters in just 4.1 innings in his start on Thursday, and while it’s fruitless to read much into spring training results, the 24-year-old did a lot to bolster his case for a rotation spot on Opening Day. Joe Girardi seemed particularly impressed with his performance, a rare sight to see given lackluster results from the other rotation candidates, and there’s a very real chance Montgomery squeaks into the fifth starter spot.

With Luis Severino’s job no longer a given after his inconsistent Spring, it’s a wide open race for the final two slots, and Montgomery’s done everything possible to win the role. While he doesn’t have the electric stuff that opens eyes, nor the prospect pedigree and gaudy minor league numbers to go with it, Montgomery has the classic look of an underrated player who could go on to be a very productive big leaguer. He’s shown an excellent ability to prevent runs in the minors—just look at his 2.20 ERA last season—and has some hidden weapons in his pitchability, arm slot, and command. If the velocity uptick is real, and he can establish some swing-and-miss pitches in his repertoire, Montgomery could quickly make himself a reliable second lefty in the Yankees’ rotation.