2011 Season Preview: Jesus Montero

Looking ahead to some 2011 milestones
Granderson scratched with right oblique strain
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Just about everyone loves prospects, and the Yankees have a doozy on the way this season in the form of Jesus Montero. The 21-year-old’s arrival is probably going to happen a lot sooner than most of us expected thanks to Frankie Cervelli‘s fractured foot, which opened the door for Montero to start the season as Russell Martin‘s backup. Thankfully he’s proven himself at every step of the minor league ladder, finishing the 2010 season by whacking 15 homers in his final 45 Triple-A games. What the 2011 season has in store … well that’s completely up in the air.

Best Case

Buster Posey? Seriously, a rookie backstop putting up a .305/.357/.505 (.368 wOBA) batting line with 18 homers and a measly 13.5% strikeout rate like the Giants’ wunderkind did last year is as good as it gets. But that’s just the offense. Posey’s glovework behind the dish has never really been a major question, but Montero’s certainly has.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

As far as the Yankees are concerned, the best case scenario really has little to do with Montero’s bat in 2011, it’s all about the glove. The best possible thing he could do this season is prove that he’s a Major League caliber catcher defensively, and that means the total package: blocking balls in the dirt, framing pitches, and throwing out attempted basestealers. How that is accomplished, I don’t care. Could be back in Triple-A or under the tutelage of Joe Girardi and Tony Pena at the big league level. Of course this is the best case section, so the latter is preferable.

If everything goes right this year, Montero will be a Rookie of the Year candidate and replace Martin as the starting catcher at midseason. A catcher with a .360-ish wOBA and what amounts to league average defense behind the plate is a four-win player, and the Yankees should do back flips if Montero gives them that in 2011.

Worst Case

Matt Wieters? Don’t get me wrong, I still very much believe in Wieters and his ability to become a well-above-average big league catcher, but the fact remains that the start of the guy’s career has not gone as scripted. In his year-and-a-half with the Orioles, he’s hit just .266/.328/.393 (.315 wOBA), mostly due to a .249/.319/.377 (.303 wOBA) effort in 2011. It’s been both disappointing and frustrating for Wieters and O’s fans alike, but being a young catcher in the AL East is no easy task.

The worst possible thing Montero could do this season is regress, both at the plate and in the field. His defense is already bad enough, to lose any more ground on that front would really put his future role with the team in question. First base is not an option, and designated hitter isn’t exactly the ideal spot for a 21-year-old. Montero’s bat is going to have to carry him, and luckily for him it’s very good, but if advanced pitchers start exploiting a hole in his swing or he starts squeezing sap out of the bat as a nervous rookie, it would only hurt him. If any doubt about his offensive potential starts creeping up, that’s bad news.

The worst possible thing the Yankees could do this season is sell low on Montero or trade him for anything less than a star-caliber player. No one is untouchable, but as Joe has already discussed, you’d have to be getting a stud with a few years of contractual control left to move Montero at this point in the game. Depending on your point of view, the Yanks really dodged a bullet when the Cliff Lee deal fell through last July, because there’s a very real chance they’d have lost Montero for half-a-season of the lefty.

Not quite the MFIKY stare, but close. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

What’s Likely To Happen

The recent track record of 21-year-old catchers in the big leagues is basically non-existent. Brian McCann is the most notable example, hitting .278/.345/.400 in 204 plate appearances for the Braves in 2005, though he was a midseason call-up. Joe Mauer, Dioner Navarro, and Yadier Molina are the only other 21-year-olds to get as many as 100 plate appearances in the show in the last 15 years. So yeah, Montero is about to join some exclusive company.

Although his skill set portends a middle-of-the-order bat, the Yankees don’t need Montero to be that guy just yet. Like they did with Jorge Posada over a decade ago, it’s likely that they’ll break their new toy in slowly, giving him a few starts a week behind the plate and gradually build him up to a full season workload. Prospects, even ones that rank among the very best in the game, are highly unpredictable at the Major League level early in their career. They’ll break your heart more often than not. Montero is no different, and in all likelihood he’ll take some lumps after being dropped into the thick of the AL East at his age.

I’m not going to throw out some numbers and offer a prediction of what Montero will produce this year, but I will say that I don’t expect him to come out and hit like Posey right out of the gate, nor do I think he’ll fall flat on his face. If he hits for a little bit of average and power while showing he’s not completely useless behind the plate, I’d consider it a win. If he doesn’t hit right away, who cares, he’ll go back to the minors to find his game, it happens all the time. In no way would it be a sign that he’s not cut out for the big leagues or something, not this early in his career.

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Looking ahead to some 2011 milestones
Granderson scratched with right oblique strain
  • Mo R.

    The Jesus will save us all…

  • jaremy

    How about Carlos Santana pre_injury? Seems like a good best case.

    Nobody f’s with the Jesus.

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

      I would think Jesus profiles closer to Posey’s line than Santana, less OBP, more slugging, but I would be thrilled if he approached eithe Posey or Santana’s lines from last year.

  • Reggie C.

    Just goes to show what special finds Posey and Santana represent to their respective organizations. for all the ability Jesus has with the bat, positional uncertainty casts much doubt on his rookie season.

    Posey is just a beast.

    • All Praise Be To Mo

      Thank Mo the Rays passed on him for Beckham a few years ago.

  • paint slick

    “because there’s a very real chance they’d have lost Montero for half-a-season of the lefty.”

    And there’s a very good chance that had Montero been moved for Lee, Burnett wouldn’t have started game 4 of the ALCS, the Yankees would have taken care of business against the Rangers, and hoisted 28 a week and a half later.

    Still, even with Burnett starting game 4, going to Chamberlain in the 6th would have probably put the Yanks in the W.S.

    It’s an exciting consolation to watch Montero begin his career as a Yankee, but I would have loved to see how last season played out with Cliff Lee.

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

      What if Lee gets them to the World Series, where he is thrashed by the Giants (like he was)? Lee may get them to the WS like he did the Rangers, but they certainly didn’t win it, and he didn’t help.

    • http://twitter.com/firstheart42 Hannah Ehrlich

      I don’t know if I buy Lee going to Philly even if he comes here and (hypothetically) wins the World Series, either. Maybe I should, with his various excuses, but I’m pretty sure that New York can love you just as much as – or more then – Philly if you win the World Series for them.

      Fallacy of the predetermined outcome, etc.

      • Ted Nelson

        There’s still a “very real chance.”

      • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

        I think him winning the WS could potentially increase his odds of going to Philly. He’d now have a ring, make $100 million plus either place, and now go back to the place he clearly loved. If he won in Texas, is there any chance he would have stayed there? I don’t know, but my guess is if the Rangers won it all last year Lee would still be in Philly.

    • Ted Nelson

      A lot could happen, but I think it’s very hard to say that there’s a “very good chance” the Yankees beat the Giants in the WS. The Rangers thoroughly beat the Yankees, and the Giants thoroughly beat the Rangers. Of course no one can say what would have happened under totally different circumstances–Rangers probably lose to TB without Lee, so it’s a whole different ballgame in the AL–but I think the Giants would have to be favored in that series based on what we know.

    • AndrewYF

      “I would have loved to see how last season played out with Cliff Lee.”

      That’s why they make video games.

    • Urban

      I’m quite happy the Yankees didn’t land Cliff Lee for the next seven years. It’ll make 2011 more difficult, but longterm the Yankees are better off.

      • All Praise Be To Mo

        I agree, the end of that contract is ugly, even without his injury history and the volatility of pitchers in general.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Just keep Montero away from AJ and we can see how good a defender Martin is.

    I can’t wait for the Jesus to get in a groove at the plate-he is gonna scorch some balls around YS.

  • Ted Nelson

    I think that’s a fair analysis.

    While I also don’t want the Yankees trading Jesus this year… Selling a Ruben Rivera or Brandon Wood after their first successful taste of AAA would have been selling high rather than selling low (more so AA for Wood, especially because he was still exclusively playing SS… which may parallel Jesus at C). I’m not at all predicting Jesus will follow that path. There is a chance, though, and it would be nice to be able to spot those types of busts before they happen. While Irabu was hardly a star, Yankees still got the better of that deal.

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

      While Jesus is certainly not flawless, I think Rivera and Wood had some major concerns that people projected them to overcome. Jesus (at least his bat), as of right now, is much more of a sure thing than those guys ever were. I agree though, there still is a chance he doesn’t pan out. Wieters is a good example. While he still does have plenty of time to develop, his trade value has plummeted the past few years. If the Orioles got a Godfater offer for him a few years ago, wouldn’t they be better off for it now, not knowing if Wieters does ever become a star?

      • Ted Nelson

        Jesus may be more advanced offensively, but I think it’s a bit revisionist, on the one hand, and premature, on the other, to call Jesus much more of a sure thing. Of course all prospects are a bit different, but those were two very good prospects. Every prospect has question marks, and I think it’s easy in hindsight to dismiss those of the guys who make it and highlight those of the guys who don’t. Obviously in hindsight that’s what you do, but I don’t know how much it helps us with predicting the future.

        Rivera finished his 21 year old season OPSing .970 in 204 AAA PAs, and was BA’s #2 prospect. The next season he struggled in AAA, but OPS’d .824 in 104 MLB PAs (crushing May and getting crushed in June) to be named the #3 BA prospect. Derek Jeter, on the other hand, was BA’s #4 and #6 prospect the seasons Rivera was #2 and #3. All this from a guy who could play all 3 OF positions. Certainly there were questions, but if Jesus looks more like H1 2010 Jesus than H2 2010 Jesus in 2011 he’ll be in a pretty similar spot. It’s definitely encouraging that Jesus was the one to adjust to AAA pitching and not the other way around like Rivera. As I recall Rivera also had some health issues in SD, but maybe that’s wrong.

        Wood is a bit of a different story, since he’s been roundly exposed by MLB pitchers but continued to crush AAA pitching. If a guy hasn’t faced a certain level of competition (and breaking balls) for more than a few ST at bats, it’s hard to say exactly how he’ll do against it. Jesus, for example, has 35 PAs this spring and is OPSing .494… is that an unrepresentative sample? or does it mean he can’t handle MLB pitching? You would have had to ask yourself a similar question if Brandon Wood struggled in ST of 2007 or 2008. Then again, there are probably also plenty of future stars who struggles in ST at 21. Wood’s performance decreased A+-to-AA-to-AAA which isn’t good, but he was still OPSing .835 in AAA at the end of the day and still splitting time at SS. If his bat had totally come through I guess you play him at 3B, but if it was good but not great maybe you live with – defense at SS to get + offense (like a certain team does) rather than an ok bat at 3B.

        Jesus also has serious positional questions, and his bat would be held to a higher standard at 1B or DH than C. If he falls even a bit short of offensive expectations and can’t C… he loses value though obviously he could still be valuable.

        I’m a bit Jesus Montero fan, don’t get me wrong.

        • Ted Nelson

          “I’m a bit Jesus Montero fan, don’t get me wrong.”

          *big

  • Urban

    My “Worst Case” scenario is Montero makes the team as a back-up catcher, and he doesn’t hit all that well since he’s not playing reguarly, and he’s facing the best pitching he’s seen. Without his hitting to balance his defense, the Yankees decide to package him with other players in a trade.

  • http://myspace.com/bksmalls Smallz

    I am positivley THRILLED the Yankees didnt trade for Lee last year. I didnt want it to happen when I first heard it was about to happen. This team isnt about collecting championships for me. I genuionley like watching these players go out and play. Sure the playoffs would of been a little more exciting with Lee in the rotation but c’mon how could you even be proud of a world series win like that when you have the 2 best leftys on the planet. Not to mention losing out on Montero and the chance that Lee would of left for the Phillies ANYWAY? Na. I am good with Jesus. Let the kid develop and learn.

    This was my fear with Jesus starting the year with the big club though. Hes got all these expectations from people to perform because people have been ranting and raving about his bat. Imagine the pressure if we didnt sign Martin??