Although it would be obviously too easy to turn the prospect packages offered to Seattle for Cliff Lee by the Yankees and Rangers into Jesus Montero versus Justin Smoak…we’re going to go for it anyway. When it comes down to it, the tipping point in Jack Z’s mind wasn’t Blake Beavan or David Adams, but rather the blue-chip cream fillings in the middle of the prospect pies. Although the Mariners ended up sending Lee to Arlington, they might have been better off seeing him in pinstripes.
To put things in perspective, I want to assess this breakdown as a competition for future value. Most importantly in baseball is offense. While Justin Smoak certainly has the build/repertoire of a Mark Teixeira, his minor league numbers do not completely back it up. A career .293/.411/.461 hitter in the minors, he certainly was getting on base at an outstanding rate due to a batting eye that is incredibly advanced for a young age. The pop, however, mostly came in spurts:
2008 (21 years old, A): .304/.355/.518, 62 PA
2009 (22 years old, AA): .328/.449/.481, 227 PA
2009 (22 years old, AAA): .244/.363/.360, 237 PA
2010 (23 years old, AAA): .300/.470/.540, 66 PA
As mentioned, the walk rate is clearly there at a phenomenal level, but the power has not been consistent. In the major leagues this year, as a twenty-three year old turning twenty-four in December, Smoak is hitting .206/.311/.346 in 283 plate appearances, good for just a 77 wRC+ and -0.3 WAR. Considering he’s playing in Texas during the summer, you’d expect Smoak to be able to slug better than .346 for the ~43% of a full season he’s played. While his .237 BABIP is sure to find its way higher up, we don’t know what his true talent level BABIP is; Smoak may just be the kind of hitter who consistently has ~.280 BABIPs. If so, he may have solid peaks, but lower lows.
Smoak’s biggest issue is his inability to hit lefties. Scouts who have seen him have commented on his struggles, and the numbers back it up. In the minors, Smoak hit just .215/.304/.331 versus southpaws, good for an abysmal .635 OPS. It has been the same story in the major leagues. Justin has hit just .146/.211/.268 against lefties in 87 plate appearances, costing him -8.3 wRAA and coming out to a terrible .2011 wOBA. Switch-hitting doesn’t mean much if you stink from one side.
Hitting-wise, Jesus Montero is doing well for his age. Although he has not shown the plate discipline Smoak has (although not many minor leaguers have), he has certainly provided enough pop. His minor league line overall is .308/.368/.488, showing a solid eye and good power for such a young player. Here’s what Baseball America’s scouting report said about him:
Montero doesn’t have a classic swing or textbook rhythm, but he’s gifted with hand-eye coordination, keen pitch recognition, a knack for barreling balls and tremendous strength. He can be out front or off balance on a pitch and still crush it. He covers the plate well and makes excellent contact. Montero hasn’t delivered completely on his raw power, but he’s close to projecting as an 80 hitter with 80 power on the 20-80 scouting scale. One veteran scout called him the best young hitter he has seen in years.
Simply put, Montero has some amazing ability as a hitter. Last year, in Double-A at just ninteen years old, Montero hit .317/.370/.539. Montero out-slugged Smoak by .50 points in Double-A despite being three years younger (!), and he still isn’t even old enough to legally drink yet. His power potential surpasses that of Smoak. In Triple-A this season, Montero has struggled a bit, hitting just .252/.328/.415- still a better OPS than Smoak had at 22 in Triple-A, and mighty impressive for a twenty year old.
Defensively, Smoak is considered an above average first baseman who could win a Gold Glove before his career is over, and TotalZone has been kind to him in the minors, as has UZR in his limited MLB time. But he doesn’t have the Doug Mientkiewicz-type range/hands that would give him a ton of added value in the field when struggling at the dish.
Jesus Montero, on the other hand, has a ton of issues in the field. He is described almost universally as below average behind the plate, and many people see a future move to first base because of his large frame (he gets frequent comparisons to Mike Piazza in that regard). Montere, however, has been making improvements, is just twenty years old, and has thrown out baserunners at a 22% rate in the minors. From MLB.com’s Scouting Report on Montero:
The question with Montero has always been about his defense. He’s big for a catcher and isn’t all that agile. That being said, he’s worked very hard on his craft behind the plate and showed improvement, particularly in throwing out runners, over the course of last season…
…”I want to be a catcher. I love to catch. I like to be a catcher. I like to be in the middle of the game. I mean, it’s my position. I want to play my position.”
When it comes down to it, I think Montero is the better pick due to the possibility he stays at catcher and his massive offensive potential. A bat like that behind the plate is just too valuable a commodity to pass on. Sure, Smoak can hit 30+ homers with good defense in his prime and have peak years of 6+ WAR, but he also may become a slightly better Chris Davis or Casey Kotchman (Kotchman also had a big build with a solid eye but lack of power in the minors) . With Montero, you know the bat is going to play regardless, and if he does end up at catcher, he could be one of the best players in baseball.
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