In my first assignment for The Cut-Off Man, I’m breaking down the principles in arguably this off-season’s biggest trade, the swap that sent Michael Pineda from Seattle to New York for Jesus Montero. Part one can be found HERE. In part two, we look at Jesus Montero.
You’ve probably seen Montero on prospect lists before, and he’s probably been listed as a catcher. Take a minute to meditate now and accept that Montero is not a catcher. I realize that moving Montero out from behind the plate decimates his value as a major league player, so let me explain why this positional change is absolutely necessary. Montero is a massive, lumbering human being. He does not possess the athleticism required to crouch behind the plate and pounce on sliders in the dirt. Montero’s receiving skills leave plenty to be desired. When I say his receiving skills are poor, I’m not just talking about framing pitches and other little nuances at which you’d like to see catchers excel. I’m talking about the trouble Montero has actually catching the baseball. He struggles just to hold on to the ball a few times a game. You can’t have that. There is some arm there, but Montero’s transfer is so slow that his pop times play down as below average. Allowing Montero to catch also makes it more likely he gets injured. It’s just a senseless decision the Mariners would do well to avoid altogether. Stick a bat in his hand and let him go.
The good news is that Montero’s bat is so sexy, it’s not going to matter. He’s been the best pure hitter in the minors for the past two years with great bat speed and even better eye hand coordination. He’s actually more of a finished product than Pineda despite the fact that Pineda’s had more run at the Major League level. But while Montero is as close to seasoned as hitters get, there’s still a little room for improvement and still a chance things can go wrong.
In order for Montero to improve he needs to be more consistent at the plate. No, I don’t mean he needs to produce on a more consistent basis, I mean he needs to be more mechanically consistent. Montero is constantly changing his batting stance (which doesn’t really matter) his hand placement at the time of pitch release (which does) and his footwork. I don’t know whether or not Montero is consciously making these changes, but I do know such changes can screw with a hitter’s rhythm and timing. This spring, watch Montero’s weight displacement. If it seems as though most of his weight is one his front foot, he’s having these timing issues. If he’s balanced, then Montero is in a groove. The more balanced Montero is at the plate, the better off he’ll be, and the less noise we see with his pre-swing mechanics the more likely he is to be balanced. An imbalanced Montero is a good hitter, a balanced Montero is a freakish monster.
One concern I have for Montero is his focus while the Mariners continue to build. The Mariners are pretty bad. Help is one the way, though, as players like Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Kyle Seager, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and Fernando Martinez as well as others all look like legitimate prospects who will contribute to varying degrees. Until those guys get to Seattle, the Mariners are going to be pretty bad. Will Montero focus and work despite the fact that he has nothing to play for? It’s not an unmerited question since Montero has underachieved before. Last year the Yankees decided they’d rather have Jorge Posada’s corpse hitting everyday and left Montero at Triple-A Scranton to start the season. Montero did exactly respond. He posted pedestrian OBPs to start 2011, hitting rock bottom in June with a .667 OPS. He was sulking, angry he had been left behind in the minors where it was clear he had nothing else to prove. Will Montero look at the standings, see a giant gap between his Mariners and the Rangers or Angels and mail it in? And if his apathy coincides with Seattle’s struggles, will two or three years of team mediocrity permanently derail Jesus’ development. It’s a possibility.
Best case scenario: Montero stays motivated and gets himself in such good shape that not only is he more mechanically consistent at the plate but he can catch every once in a while. He’s worth 6 to 7 Wins Above Replacement annually.
Worst Case Scenario: An apathetic Montero not only mails it in at the plate, but fails to keep himself in shape. His poor conditioning means his decline phase begins earlier and he starts to slip involuntarily just as the Mariners start to get good. Bye the time Seattle is really ready to contend, he’s a chubby disappointment.
Most Likely Scenario: Being in the majors is enough to keep Jesus motivated. He doesn’t iron out his minor mechanical issues but he’s good enough to overcome them. He’s not Edgar Martinez, but he has the career Erubiel Durazo should have had.