It dawned on me recently that I have never profiled top New York Yankees prospect Jesus Montero. Now is the time. This is the place.
I moan daily that Montero has not as yet made his major league debut. It bothers me constantly. I have given up quality players to add Montero to my AL-only team. I selected Montero in almost every league in which I participate. I'm a believer. I believe in the batting average and I believe in the power. I believe in Montero's potential to bury the baseball in the bleachers of Yankee stadium; to all fields. I don't believe that Montero has much more to prove in minor league baseball. That alone won't guarantee success at the big league level. All it means is that he probably won't benefit by any further minor league development. From the outside looking in, it appears that Montero finds himself in the middle of a mess over which he has no control.
I won't rehash the entire tale that led to Jorge Posada and Yankees manager Joe Girardi airing their soiled laundry on the world's social media clothesline for all to see. Suffice it to say some very sensitive feelings were bruised. I get it. Posada is an icon in New York, but nobody put a gun to Brian Cashman's head and told him to cross his fingers and toes, sign a 40-year-old declining player and hope he hits like he's 25 again. In the offseason, Cashman found himself between the proverbial "you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't" area code. In hindsight, it looks like he shouldn't have, but he did. Cashman signed Posada to a one-year contract and Posada is now on the payroll, on the roster and on the ropes.
Posada's contract has had a ripple effect on the Yankees' organization, especially on Montero. At some point, Yankees brass concluded that Posada is no longer capable of providing major league quality defense behind the plate. That provided a huge hole at an important defensive position. Last season, Francisco Cervelli showed an ability to do the job defensively at catcher, but he hadn't shown he could hit major league pitching. Montero has shown that he can hit minor league pitching, but he hasn't proven himself to be a complete major league quality catcher. So over the winter, the team turned to free agent Russell Martin and Posada became the designated hitter, while Montero was sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Cervelli got hurt early in the season and Martin started off like he had something to prove to the Dodgers, to all of baseball and especially to himself.
What's next for the Yankees? What's next for Montero?
At 21, Montero potentially could add additional size and bulk to his already super sized 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. Imagine moving that type body around behind the plate day in and day out? And that's only part of the reason many scouts project Montero will not remain a catcher in the big leagues. While Montero may have a lethal bat, he has multi-faceted challenges ahead. I believe the scouts are correct. He has trouble moving around behind the plate. That includes blocking balls in the dirt, moving his feet into throwing position, and transferring the ball to his throwing hand. In 2010, Montero had 15 passed balls. Opposing runners were not at all shy about attempting to steal bases. During this past spring training, Girardi declared that Montero had shown marked defensive improvement. Having been a quality catcher himself, Girardi indicated he had seen Montero work hard to become a much better defensive catcher. Many scouts disagree. They feel Montero could be a liability behind the plate. Can he be worse throwing out runners than Mike Piazza? Can he be worse overall than Jarrod Saltalamacchia? And really now, Victor Martinez is not Bengie Molina. Come to think of it, that's why Martinez plays most of his games as a DH these days. So the extent to which Montero could hurt his club defensively is in the eye of the beholder.
Let's assume that Girardi is not enamored with Montero as a catcher. Isn't designated hitter Jesus Montero better than designated hitter Jorge Posada? Or aging designated hitter Andruw Jones? Or even the oft-injured (including at this moment) Eric Chavez? That's exactly what the Yankees' front office is debating as I write this. The Yankees' offense isn't scoring runs and winning games as had been expected from the team's 2011 blueprint for victory. Boston's mediocre start has allowed New York to hang around the pennant race. The Rays are more than an idle threat as the season is already one quarter gone. How long can the Yankees go with Posada? That too is in the eye of the beholder. And Cashman be holdin' the cards.
The Yankees signed the Guacara, Venezuela native Montero on the first day of international signing (July 2) in 2006. The son of an auto shop worker and a skilled automobile engine aficionado himself, Montero ultimately signed for a reported $2.65M. Montero has hit a baseball with authority at every level of minor league baseball since he came to the United States as a teenager.
Montero has two tools that grade at the top of the scouting scale. On most scout evaluations, he is an 80 hitter for average and an 80 hitter for power. That translates to a projection of a .320 batting average and 35 home runs a year. I rate his overall power at a 75, which means a more realistic 30 homers. His arm strength is good but his accuracy is average to a tick below. His speed is below average and according to major league scouts who have evaluated his work behind the plate, his defense is still below the major league norm. Much of the defensive concern centers on his footwork and overall mechanics. It adds up to a guy currently penciled in as a catcher that would make a great designated hitter in the American League.
Does is make sense to have a 21-year-old designated hitter? Isn't that too young? Maybe not. Can he play another position like first base or left field? Well, in the Yankees' organization first base belongs to Mark Teixeira. Period. Left field? Montero is not very athletic. He's slow and lumbering and he hasn't played the position. He's a catcher. It's part of a collective Yankees' organizational mess. The mess includes Posada feeling disrespected, the role of designated hitter is unresolved, aging players aren't hitting yet, top prospect Montero is still waiting in the wings wondering if he'll ever get a chance to play, other organizational catchers are in a system-wide logjam, the Yankee brass is fighting among one another, the pitching staff is woefully thin, Rafael Soriano has a sore elbow and hasn't pitched as advertised, and more. Much more. This is a reality show being played out in public. It's real and it's public, and it's impacting lots of people.
What makes Montero such a good hitter? I have watched him hit over and over again. He has excellent eye-hand coordination. He has very quick hands and strong wrists and forearms. He can turn quickly on a ball inside and he can go out and get a pitch on the outside corner. As a right-handed hitter, he has no difficulty hitting the ball to all fields because of a short, measured swing. It's a swing that Montero repeats with ease. He gets his bat out front of the ball with pure, raw strength. Breaking pitches don't fool him. In short, he's a disciplined hitter with mature mechanics. Unlike many young hitters, Montero doesn't chase bad pitches. As a contact hitter- he doesn't strike out that much. But he doesn't walk much either. His on base percentage will come mostly from getting base hits. It's amazing to watch how often Montero puts the barrel of the bat on the ball.
With two above average hitting tools, what happens if there just isn't a place on the Yankees for him to play? That's the $2.65M question. Maybe he just can't be a big league catcher for New York. Maybe he can play for another team that needs a mediocre backstop. Maybe his offense will be enough for a club to take a chance on his defense. A team like the Royals that need a catcher might be a good fit, and they have pitching and prospects to trade.
The Mariners were said to have had a deal for Montero with the Yankees but instead chose to send Cliff Lee to Texas for Justin Smoak. The Mariners need catching. Were they concerned enough about Montero's catching ability (or inability) to back off a deal with New York? In reality, the American League teams needing catching help are rather limited. But some may surface if called. Certainly there are National League clubs that would love to pencil in Montero as their catcher in and day out. While the National League may not be as good a destination because of the lack of a designated hitter, he is such a good hitter that he can single-handedly improve some clubs with his offense alone.
Montero has had experience at every level of minor league baseball. His 2010 season was a very effective Montero performance. Although his batting average was below .300 for the first time since 2007, he still hit .289 with 21 homers and 75 RBI. This season Montero is repeating Triple-A at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It isn't as bad as a child having to repeat third grade, but it really doesn't make much sense either. With a bat as potent as Montero's, he belongs hitting major league pitching. To date this season, Montero hasn't flashed the power most expect. As of this writing he has only two home runs. However, he's hitting .336 with 12 RBI.
Some say even though he's only playing at Triple-A, they feel Montero is bored, arrogant and bordering on cocky. I certainly hope that isn't the case, as Montero hasn't had an iota of success as yet in major league baseball. Hitting minor league pitching is one thing, hitting major league pitching is quite another. The leap may be beyond his press clippings. Probably not. But we can remember that Montero really didn't tear it up in spring training with the Yankees this past March. In fact, he was mediocre at the plate. His line over 40 at-bats was just .250/0/2. It's a small sampling, but it does show that adjustments will have to be made to succeed against better quality pitching.
Once Montero is called to the big league club or is traded, a ripple effect will likely take place at the catching position in the Yankees' organization. While they may be weak at other positions system wide, the club is quite strong at catcher. Waiting in the wings along with Montero are prospects Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez. Ironically, in 2009 when he arrived via the same international signing route as Montero. Sanchez was given an even larger signing bonus than Montero. Baseball insiders claim Sanchez has a higher overall ceiling than Montero. Sanchez is said to be an extremely good hitter that plays much better defense than Montero. Romine has a balanced resume of offense and defense to offer, but he doesn't have the extraordinary hitting tools of either Montero or Sanchez. My point? The Yankees will be able to fill a void if they choose to trade Montero.
Now we wait. Will Montero make it to the big club anytime soon? Will he be traded out of the organization for much needed pitching help? Will the Posada saga impact the future of Montero? Can he be a quality (or even average) big league catcher?
We won't know if Montero can hit major league pitching until he gets a chance. He won't get a chance until the Yankees make some difficult decisions. Frankly, it's a mess.
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Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a graduate of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix.