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Rounding Third: Jesus, I Like Him Very Much, But ...

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).


"Jesus, I like him very much ..."

... But he's not in my Top 200, much to the chagrin of many of my readers. While Brett Lawrie might be the biggest positive outlier in my overall rankings, it's clear that Montero is the biggest purposeful omission. His ADP (average draft position) on Mock Draft Central is 167, and in MDC's “expert" ADP's he chimes in at #151. In two recent drafts with fantasy-industry folks participating, he went even higher. In the FSTA draft in Las Vegas two weeks ago, the CBS squad drafted him 117th overall, and in MLB.com's Mock Slow Draft, Joe Sheehan took him 138th. Both of the latter leagues are 13-team mixed leagues that require two starting catchers, and in both leagues, Montero doesn't yet qualify at catcher.

And therein lies the rub. Where Montero belongs principally relies upon the fact that he's DH/UT-eligible only in most leagues, having caught three games in the majors while playing 14 games as DH with the Yankees last season. For position-qualifying purposes, he would have been better off not playing in the majors at all last season, so we could use his minor league qualification - he caught 88 games among his 109 Triple-A games total last season. The standard that I've typically played under for qualifying at a position is 20 games at that position the previous season, or failing getting up to 20 major league games at any position, the position where he played the most. In season, that requirement usually is 10 games. However, some leagues have far more liberal requirements, both from the previous season as well as the current season - including as little as one game in the current season. Where your league falls on this spectrum obviously plays a huge role in how you value Montero. For instance, if I were to treat Montero as catcher-eligible right now, that would be worth at least 60 slots to me in a standard 12-team mixed league that starts two catchers, putting him in the same class of catchers as J.P. Arencibia and Yadier Molina - somewhere between 140 and 150 overall.

If you are in one of those leagues with more stringent requirements, how should you value him? Let's first look at his chances at qualifying at catcher, assuming he needs 10 games in 2012 there. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said that Montero will be given every chance to catch this spring as the M's sort out their alignment. After trading for Montero, naturally it makes sense for the Mariners to give him the chance to succeed or fail behind the plate before they consign him to a DH role for the rest of his career. But how quickly will that happen during the course of the regular season? Miguel Olivo is the incumbent at catcher, and the Mariners just traded for a platoon partner in John Jaso. Neither catcher *should* stand in the way of Montero's long-term development, and chances are neither will, but Olivo at least has a solid enough defensive reputation along with a reasonable bat to keep him in the lineup more often than not. My best guess is that Montero catches once or twice a week and is the full-time DH the rest of the time. Under such a scheme, the earliest Montero will qualify at catcher in a 10-game requirement environment is mid-May, and that could push into June. During the time when he's not catcher-eligible, you'll be starting a replacement-level catcher in your second catcher spot (as you certainly won't draft two more above-average catchers), someone like Rod Barajas or Nick Hundley. You'll also lose ground to those starting better hitters than Montero in their UT slots, or burning up a bench spot on him while you wait for him to qualify.

Of course, I'm begging the question when stating that Montero will produce less than a replacement level player slotting at UT in standard 12-team mixed leagues. Let's look at what Montero will actually do. Before he was traded to the Mariners, I projected Montero to hit .298 with 23 homers, 80 RBI and 66 runs. After the trade, he got downgraded to his current projection of .283/19/69/54. In both cases, he gets no stolen bases. I didn't change his playing time projection after the trade - in a way, his path to playing time is more crowded, at least as the rosters are currently constructed for both the Yankees and Mariners. Whereas the Mariners have both Olivo and Jaso behind the plate, the backup behind Russell Martin for the Yankees is the less-established Francisco Cervelli. The DH for the Yankees is Andruw Jones, with various regulars getting playing time there too to get a break from their respective positions, giving Eduardo Nunez playing time. Compare that to the Mariners, who were in decent shape with Mike Carp, Casper Wells and maybe even Trayvon Robinson getting playing time in left field and DH between them. Independent of the ballparks they play in, I'd rather have Carp and Wells over Jones and Nunez as hitters. None of them will likely stand in the way of Montero if he's holding his own, but should he struggle early, they could conceivably have a reasonable replacement value to afford the Mariners a chance to send him down. If the Mariners do have Montero catch more, that lessens the possibility that he is the regular DH on all the games he doesn't catch, as he'll need more opportunities to recover.

I'm on more solid footing with what the trade to Seattle will do to Montero's rate stats. In fact, I might not have penalized him enough after the trade. Safeco Field is well-known as a pitcher's park, but what's really important is how it disproportionally punishes right-handed hitters. Last season, the park factor on right-hand average and home runs was indexed at 91 (all Park Factor stats are according to the 2012 Bill James Handbook). The three-year average is even worse for right-handed power, with a 75 index among AL ballparks. Yankee Stadium, meanwhile, was a positive in both categories, both last year and over the last three years. There couldn't have been a worse place in the AL for Montero to land, at least in terms of his rate stats. The case for what it will do for his counting stats, at least on a per plate-appearance basis, is readily transparent, so I won't belabor the point - the Mariners' surrounding lineup will hurt him compared to hitting in the Yankees' lineup. Looking back at my post-trade projection change, arguably I should have given Montero 17 homers rather than 19 if I were to go wholly on the park change (and I still might downgrade his power on a per at-bat rate, though that might come with an upgrade in the number of his plate appearances - stay tuned, I'm sure you'll be riveted while waiting for the result).

There's one other factor that I haven't included in my projection. If Montero does catch more often, to the point where that's his primary position, how will that change his performance at the plate? How many times have we seen young catchers, especially those on less-solid footing defensively, struggle at the plate as they make their way behind the plate? Montero has a reputation as an inferior defender - if he didn't, we wouldn't be having this discussion of when he will qualify at catcher, or for that matter, he wouldn't have been traded by the Yankees in the first place. So how will trying to learn the position at the major league level affect his hitting? Would the physical toll of catching full-time hurt his performance? It very well might, though I don't know the answer to those questions, and I doubt players react uniformly to those influences. So without good data, I didn't incorporate it.

As always when evaluating catcher value or potential-catcher value, the specific rules of your fantasy league matter. Besides the league universe (Mixed, AL, or NL) and league-size, how many catchers you need to start is a huge consideration. Though it seems counter-intuitive, I'm more inclined to rank Montero higher in one-catcher leagues. He'll still slot behind my top eight catchers (Carlos Santana, Buster Posey, Brian McCann, Mike Napoli, Joe Mauer, Matt Wieters, Miguel Montero and Alex Avila), but I'd take him above anyone else in that next tier. Because it's not as punitive to me if he misses out on catcher-eligibility or if he doesn't perform, due to the higher replacement level available and the likely lower cost to get him, the gamble makes more sense. However, if you're in a 12-team AL-only league that starts two catchers, suddenly you're starting Jose Molina as your second catcher while waiting for Montero and happy for the opportunity to do so. Maybe you have a high-risk, high-reward draft strategy and are comfortable with that notion, but be aware that the downside risk is much steeper.

Finally, over his career, Montero hasn't played more than 132 games in any individual season, making it less likely that he gets in 150+ games in 2012. I'll concede that 120 games might be on the lower end of his range. With a 150-game projection, which is probably the upper-most range of games he'd play with significant time behind the plate, Montero's raw draft value would be comparable to Freddie Freeman or Gaby Sanchez, around 160 overall. If you slot him significantly higher, you are assuming both a full season of playing time to go along with early catcher eligibility, or you are suggesting that he's going to immediately beat Safeco Field. There are too many factors working against that for me. When I do my next set of rankings around March 1, Montero might end up cracking my top 200, but he'll still land well below his ADP. There are plenty of reasons to like his future as a major leaguer, but don't invest too early this year.