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02/21/11 3:48 PM EST

Montgomery rising fast in Royals' system

Arrival in big leagues not far away for highly rated left-hander

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Left-hander Mike Montgomery, one of the Royals' pitching prodigies, was intently staring at his iPhone. He was concentrating on a game of cellular Scrabble with teammate Will Smith at a clubhouse table.

Apparently, Scrabble is a scramble for Montgomery.

"I should go home and read a dictionary," he said. "That's the only way I'm going to get better."

Baseball, though, is a game at which Montgomery excels, particularly when it comes to throwing one over the plate. When MLB.com ranked the top left-handed pitching prospects this year, only Cincinnati Reds phenom Aroldis Chapman ranked ahead of Montgomery.

"I heard that but, honestly, it's pretty much one of those things you don't want to get wrapped up in as a player," he said. "It's good for everybody else. I mean, I think it's a pretty cool honor to be ranked right behind Chapman."

He put this perspective on the ranking: "It's one of those things that doesn't really matter until you're in the big leagues and have success."

That's precisely what the Royals are banking on for Montgomery. He's one of their prime starting prospects, and though he's a long shot to make the rotation out of Spring Training, his arrival probably isn't far away.

How does he rate his chances in this camp?

"No clue," he said. "I have absolutely no idea. If I go out there and pitch well, the rest is going to take care of itself. That's a motto you've got to live by at this point."

Montgomery has been an impressive guy so far.

"He's mid-90s, strong downhill action on his fastball, good breaking ball, good changeup," manager Ned Yost said.

A power left-hander, he's reminded Royals staffers of highly promising lefties of the past.

"Every time I watch him throw, I flash back to a young Steve Avery," Yost said. "When Avery was right, he was really, really good."

Pitching coach Bob McClure said: "I haven't seen a left-handed pitcher with that kind of power since I saw [Chuck] Finley when I saw him as a young guy."

Both those pitchers were tall, like the 6-foot-4 Montgomery. Avery twice was an 18-game winner for the Braves before injuries slowed him down and Finley had 200 victories in his career, mostly with the Angels.

Montgomery, the 36th overall pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, is a product of Hart High School in Newhall, Calif., named for early cowboy film star William S. Hart.

It's where his father, David, teaches math.

"I didn't have him as a teacher, though," Montgomery said. "I don't think that would've worked well."

His father also used to coach basketball, and his mother, Jeanette, teaches physical education at a junior high school. Both parents were college athletes who played basketball -- dad at Tennessee Temple, mom at Cal Poly Pomona.

So at Hart High, basketball was young Montgomery's primary love. Sometimes he'd skip baseball practice to play basketball. Later in high school, though, he figured out his prospects for an athletic future were much better in baseball.

That has proved out. In his three seasons, he's posted a 2.27 ERA in 53 Minor League games with a 15-10 record. He's held opponents to a .213 batting average and has 220 strikeouts against 79 walks in 245 2/3 innings.

Last year, Montgomery was limited to 20 regular-season starts because he missed about a month with a left forearm strain. But he finished the season with the championship Northwest Arkansas team in the Texas League.

"It was pretty awesome to be a part of that," he said. "Then [Team] USA called me and asked me to play. The Royals wanted me to go to that and it was a blast."

He was among six Royals on Team USA in the Pan American Qualifying Tournament in Puerto Rico. He was 2-0 and gave up just two earned runs in two starts. After that he went to the Arizona Fall League and was a starting pitcher in the AFL Rising Stars game.

"It was a long year, but it was one of those years when I needed to learn a lot and to get the experience at a higher level," he said.

He still seems to be learning at Scrabble, though. Perhaps his sister Shayna, a court reporter in Los Angeles, could give him some help.

"She's probably the best Scrabble player ever," he said. "She types up depositions for lawyers and types even faster than I can read and she has to know how to spell words. So I definitely won't be playing her in Scrabble."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.