Why Seattle Chose Smoak Over Montero

If we are to assume the Yankees reported offer – Jesus Montero, David Adams, Zach McAllister – was on the table, it would follow that the Mariners brass ultimately made a not-so-simple calculation, and ended up with this: Justin Smoak > Jesus Montero. The comparison is a significant stance because it runs counter to the majority of offseason opinions. Only ESPN’s Keith Law, among analysts I can find, ranked Smoak over Montero this winter.

And not much has changed since then; Montero has less-than expected numbers at 20 years old in Triple-A, Smoak had less-than expected numbers at 23 years old in Arlington. Ultimately, I can pinpoint three significant reasons that Jack Zduriencik used to reach their Rangers-favored conclusion. Two are reasons that have been (and will be) well-documented elsewhere:

1. The Mariners don’t believe Montero to be a viable option at catcher, even in a diminished capacity. As a corollary, they believe Justin Smoak’s long-lauded defense at first will outpace Montero’s eventual contributions there.
2. The understanding that Safeco Field would be a better fit for the switch-hitting Smoak than the right-handed Montero. This is no revelation: “Know Thy Park” is practically a commandment of front-office work.

Yes, these were surely factors that ultimately supported the M’s decision. But I think there is a third, significant reason that you won’t hear talked about much that led to choosing Smoak over Montero:

The Mariners evaluate potential commodities from the context of potential performance during team-controlled seasons only.

The two players in question have close-enough offensive profiles that I don’t think you could make the case for trading the 20-year-old Montero for the 23-year-old Smoak (in a vacuum). Montero has a decent chance to be in the Major Leagues next season, and thus, should have the longer Major League career. But if Montero does play in the Majors next season — and considering he’s hit .312/.377/.550 since June 7, I submit that it’s likely (especially if he had gone to Seattle) — his team-controlled seasons will come at ages 21-26. The remainder of Smoak’s will come at ages 24-28.

Seattle, I think, is betting that Montero will take a couple years to find his footing in the Major Leagues. I don’t think they would question his potential, just gambling that he’s most likely to reach it after he hits free agency. They look at a guy like Paul Konerko, who before the season, I listed as a nice median outcome for Montero’s career. Konerko, from ages 21-27, hit a combined .279/.342/.470, posting an OPS just 8% above league average. Since then, he’s hit .278/.363/.513, showing more patience and power, with an OPS+ of 125.

The opposite part of that argument is Miguel Cabrera, who is clearly the top-end of what Montero could become. Miggy hit 33 home runs at age 21, and was a cumulative .311/.383/.542 through age 26. At age 20, before being called up, Cabrera had a similar number of plate appearances in Double-A that Montero has had in Triple-A. In the Southern League, Cabrera hit .365/.429/.609, with 31 walks, 29 doubles and 10 home runs. In the International League, Montero is batting .252/.328/.415, with 33 walks, 19 doubles and 7 home runs.

The Mariners are essentially gambling on Montero to be more like Paul Konerko than Miguel Cabrera. And Smoak, meanwhile, will have the ages where most hitters hit their prime at the tail end of his arbitration-eligible seasons.

Montero is a great prospect, but almost every part of his game is still projection. The power is still of the gap variety. He’s yet to play his Major League position. Smoak has struggled in the big leagues, but the skills are there. Defense, patience, power. The Mariners don’t care whether Jesus Montero or Justin Smoak will have a better career, like Baseball America does. They care about which would provide the best value while still coming cheap.

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