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WAR’s Favorite Position

As best I can tell – using the B-Ref Play Index – there have been nine catchers in history to play at least 50% of their games at catcher carrying Jesus Montero’s size. If we needed something else besides scouts’ wishes to project a move from behind the plate, precedent is clearly behind that notion. The problem is, in the Yankees organization, the only other position available is Designated Hitter, as Mark Teixeira is firmly entrenched at first base until 2016. And deservedly so.

The overwhelming rhetoric is that Montero can support a move to any position, even one that only asks its occupants to hit the ball far and often. His size, his power, his contact skills were near historic levels last season, as he split his age-19 season between High-A and Double-A. However, to be thorough, I went through the Baseball America archives and looked for top 25 prospects that were only ranked on the prowess of their right-handed hitting. I tried to self-edit the players that drew even modest praise for their athleticism or defensive ability, eliminating Drew Henson and Derrek Lee (Andy Marte and Miguel Cabrera) for attempts at even-handedness. In 20 years of ranking prospects, I found 11 similar examples: Billy Butler, Conor Jackson, Brian Dopirak, Jason Stokes, Mike Cuddyer, J.R. House, Pat Burrell, Paul Konerko, Dave McCarty, Tim Costo, Todd Zeile.

This is surely not the most inspiring list for Yankees fans, who probably wonder why Frank Thomas could not have been ranked higher by BA in 1990, or why I eliminated Cabrera. But I think it does a nice job of highlighting the potential risks we have with Montero, and also shows the obvious All-Star upside as well. Two examples stick out as the most poignant: Billy Butler and Paul Konerko. Both are bad-bodied mashers, and Konerko is a guy who had to move from behind the plate young in his career. Butler and Montero split their age-19 seasons between High-A and Double-A, with these results:

Name      PA    K%   BB%   XBH%   BABIP
Butler   549  17.9   8.9   12.9   .374
Montero  379  12.4   7.4   11.4   .352

This is defining XBH% as XBH/PA, so these are big-time power numbers. I didn’t include Konerko, who didn’t take off until his age 20 season. But, I think Yankee fans would be happy if Montero followed Konerko’s path for his age-20 and -21 seasons, in Double and Triple-A, respectively.

Konerko   PA    K%   BB%   XBH%   BABIP
Age 20   572  15.2  12.8    9.6   .313
Age 21   560  10.9  11.4   12.3   .305

Now, let’s fast forward into Butler and Konerko’s Major League reality, using B-Ref’s per 162 games feature, accounting for Butler’s career up to this point, and Konerko’s first seven full big league seasons (1999-2005):

Name      PA   2B  3B   HR   BB   SO   BABIP
Butler   653   42   2   18   51   93   .318
Konerko  656   30   1   32   60   81   .285

Pick the middle ground, and I think this gives us a nice idea of what Montero might be able to do offensively. He’ll align closer with Butler in terms of BABIP and BB, closer with Konerko in strikeout rate and extra-base hit allotment. Overall, a player in the .290/.350/.500 range for his team-controlled seasons. Essentially, the player Konerko was in 2002 is what I envision for Montero. This .369 wOBA would have put him on par with Robinson Cano in last year’s Yankee lineup. He would be worth about 25 batting runs above replacement.

That is, choosing the Butler/Konerko path for Montero – which I think nicely middles the Dopirak/Stokes path and the Thomas/Cabrera path – means that Montero is +25 runs, +0 fielding, +20 replacement and -15 for positional adjustment. Overall, we’re looking at a 3-win player.

You’ll have to look 82 places lower in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list to find the Yankees catcher of the future, Austin Romine. But what if Romine spends his team-controlled years getting 520 plate appearances (17.3 above replacement) from behind the plate (+9.7 positional adjustment). If my projection for Montero holds water, and Austin Romine can manage to put up a .340 wOBA and average defensive performance — no stretch at all for a top 100 prospect — then Austin Romine projects as a more valuable asset to the New York Yankees than Jesus Montero.

There are alternate realities for Jesus Montero, in which he gets traded and becomes a plus defensive first baseman down the road. There is a reality that he manages to stay behind the plate, and becomes something resembling Mike Piazza. There’s another where he splits time between back-up catcher and designated hitter, almost negating a positional adjustment in the process. This is a big season for Jesus Montero. If he shows scouts that he won’t do too much damage catching 50 games a season, his value as a top ten prospect stands. But if he stays in this organization, and moves from behind the plate like many scouts believe, Montero quickly becomes one of the game’s most overvalued prospects.