When the Seattle Mariners dealt left-hander Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers for a package centered around first baseman Justin Smoak, my initial reaction was surprise – the New York Yankees were in the hunt and had apparently offered their top prospect, only to be rebuffed at the 11th hour. In March, a spring training piece I wrote on Montero included even stronger sentiment:
Jesus Montero has a chance to have a very special career for the New York Yankees, or any franchise he may be dealt to. Personally, I thought the Seattle Mariners were nuts for wanting Justin Smoak over Jesus Montero at the trade deadline last season.
Having never had the opportunity to scout Smoak in person, my frame of reference for discussing Smoak became Montero as he still ranks as the best pure hitting prospect I’ve had the opportunity to scout.
Unfortunately for the Mariners, Smoak has failed to live up to those lofty expectations producing just 0.2 WAR in nearly 900 plate appearances. Their continued search for offense led them back to the Yankees doorstep once again, only this time, the cost of acquiring Montero significantly more steeper, costing the time young hurler Michael Pineda.
Based on ZIPS projections, Jesus Montero should be the most potent offensive player on a relatively young Seattle Mariners team immediately. And while his slugging percentage of .590 in limited action is tantalizing, framing Montero as a pure power hitter would be ill-advised.
Yes, Montero will produce power, but he profiles as more of a complete hitter whose relatively level swing plane allows him to consistently barrel the baseball, leading to both strong batting averages and respectable on base percentages. In Seattle, Montero may wind up trading home runs for a significant number of doubles early in his career, as he continues to refine his hitting mechanics to create more backspin and fully tap into his power potential.
With experience, Montero should lower his strikeout rates, which are of slight concern considering his regression in that area over the past couple of seasons. Additionally, he may never post impressive walk totals, but will be forced into a more disciplined approach as pitchers game plan for Montero to exploit his weaknesses. However, with his growth both offensively and defensively since scouting him as an embryo, I’m confident in Montero’s ability to make the necessary adjustments to eventually thrive.
On defense, regardless of how much Montero has improved behind the dish, designated hitter remains a likely landing spot – especially on a roster being infused with quality young arms in Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Hector Noesi and Blake Beavan. And while the Mariners are becoming the west coast Braves in terms of developing young arms, trusting them to Montero would be unwise.
The scenario may unfold where Montero becomes Noesi’s personal catcher based on their familiarity with each other to maximize his offensive value, but trusting 120-140 games to the 22-year old? No matter what the advanced statistics indicate in terms of loss of value for a catcher moving off the position, letting Montero settle in as designated hitter and trusting the staff to the veteran combination of Miguel Olivo/John Jaso is likely a win for the organization as a whole.
Additionally, Montero behind the plate raises his injury risk to unacceptable levels considering his offensive ceiling and value regardless of position. Beyond discussing the obvious in injuries to Carlos Santana and Buster Posey over the past couple of seasons, Montero has always struggled to protect his bare hand behind the plate, which makes the former college catcher in me cringe.
Catching 101 includes a lesson in properly protecting the thumbs – which Montero seems to have missed – as he rarely tucks his right hand safely behind his back foot and out of harms way. Taking things a step further, Montero’s bare hand “floats” mid-pitch as he adjusts to catch and frame. This leaves him susceptible to foul tips off of the hands.
In general, this is a relatively simple adjustment, but scouting him in 2008, and then seeing the same bad habits in 2011 leave me wondering if his hand positioning is more a function of balance which would be harder to correct. Quite simply, Montero could be the second coming of Ivan Rodriguez defensively and Montero’s heightened injury risk may not be worth it. A badly broken thumb costs a player months of playing time and could run the risk of long term damage.
As an offensive player, Montero ranks in the top-four amongst prospects I’ve scouted, right there with Braves Jason Heyward, Marlins Mike Stanton and Nationals Bryce Harper – Select company to say the least. After first scouting Montero in 2008 I wrote:
With his advanced hitting approach and repeatable swing mechanics, I can see him competing for batting titles. At 18, he has time to learn how to add backspin, but his line drive power should allow him to hit 25-30 home runs annually even if he doesn’t.
For me, little has changed since that statement, even though Montero has experienced more adversity at the upper levels than initially thought. Keep in mind, he is still only 22 years of age even if it seems as if he has been around forever. This age is a sweet spot for projecting star level careers and Montero is no exception.