Jesus Montero, Backup Catcher?

A rumor is a rumor is a rumor
2011 Season Preview: Alex Rodriguez
Eye of the ... Jesus. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

All throughout the offseason, the Yankees have maintained that Russell Martin is the starting catcher, saying so rather unequivocally on numerous occasions. They haven’t been so committal when talking about the backup catcher’s spot though, saying that Jesus Montero and Austin Romine were in direct competition with the incumbent Frankie Cervelli. For the most part we’ve (or at least I’ve) blown that off as standard Yankees-speak, saying there was a competition when there were really wasn’t just to keep everyone motivated. Nothing wrong with that, and there are plenty of reasons to stick with Cervelli in 2011.

However, as I mentioned on yesterday’s podcast, the more I hear Joe Girardi and the coaching staff talk in Spring Training, the more I think Montero has a legit chance to win the job. Does that mean he’s the favorite? No, of course not. But it certainly sounds like he’s got a non-zero chance to break camp with the big league team. So the question becomes: would the Yankees being doing the right thing by going with Montero as the backup catcher? Let’s do this old school, with a pros and cons list…

The Pros

The obvious difference between Cervelli and Montero is the offense. Cervelli’s best single season at any level was his .278/.384/.396 (.366 wOBA) performance with High-A Tampa in 2007. Montero’s worst single season was his .280/.366/.421 (.373 wOBA) effort with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2007. If you want a full season league, it was last year’s .289/.353/.517 (.375 wOBA) performance with Triple-A. Cervelli has eight (!!!) career homers in five total years. Montero hit 15 homers after being almost traded for Cliff Lee last July. I think we can all agree that Hey-Zeus could outhit Frankie with a rolled up newspaper.

Aside from the offense, one benefit that is perhaps being overlooked is that Montero would get to work with Joe Girardi and Tony Pena on a daily basis in the big leagues. Obviously it’s his defense that’s holding him back right now, and although former big league catcher/Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar has done a fine job tutoring the team’s best prospect behind the dish, Girardi and Pena could impart some serious catching knowledge on the kid. It’s not uncommon for a club’s best instructors/coaches to be at the big league level. Montero might not catch everyday in the show, but he’d be able to work with those two while catching bullpen sessions and what not on a daily basis.

Remember, the Yankees broke Jorge Posada in over a period of several years, they didn’t just throw him to the wolves and make him the everyday backstop as soon as he was called up. Posada started 52 games behind the plate in 1997, then 85 in 1998, then 98 in 1999 before starting 136 games at catcher in 2000, a number one backstop’s workload. Montero could be broken in in a similar fashion with Martin serving as he caddy. Perhaps 50 starts in 2011, 80 in 2012, and then 120 in 2013 (the season after Martin will be able to leave as a free agent) would work.

The Cons

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

At just 21 years old, Montero could certainly benefit from playing every single day at the Triple-A level. Remember, his track record of performing there is basically 50 games long. The first 73 contests weren’t so kind to him. And that’s just offensively. Playing everyday would do nothing but help his defense, no matter how hopeless it might look. Catching bullpens and listening to Girardi and Pena is one thing, getting behind the dish in game situations is another all together.

There’s also a chance that playing sparingly with stunt his development offensively. I don’t think that’s the case, but we can’t discount it. Playing two or three games a week isn’t the same as playing five or six times, Montero might have trouble maintaining a rhythm. A demotion back to Triple-A might hurt his confidence as well. Same deal for Cervelli, we can’t forget him. A trip to the minors might hurt his development and/or trade value, who knows. That’s obviously not a priority, but it’s part of the pro/con equation.

One final thing to remember is that there’s a very real financial gain to be made by keeping Montero in the minors for the first two months of the season. Forget about the arbitration clock stuff, the Yankees can afford whatever raises he’d be due, but the difference between Montero becoming a free agent after 2016 and after 2017 is having him on the Opening Day roster or called him up in late-May/early-June. Those two months in 2011 will give the Yankees an extra six or seven months of Montero down the road at the below market price, when he should be in the prime of his career.

The Verdict

For all we know, the talk of the backup catcher competition might just be that, talk. The same way Bubba Crosby was going to be the center fielder in 2006, or the way the team wouldn’t give up a first round pick to sign a reliever this winter, it could just be an act. But if not, if the team is legitimately giving Montero a chance to unseat Cervelli as the backup backstop, well I think I’m pretty cool with that.

I wasn’t always though, I was pretty gung-ho about starting Jesus in the minors just so that he could play everyday and gain what I felt was invaluable experience, but I’m starting to believe the benefits of having him in the show with an apprenticeship under Martin, Posada, Girardi, and Pena are very real. Girardi recently said the biggest step in becoming a big league catcher is “earning the trust of your staff,” something Montero can do gradually than all at once. Learning to call a game and prepare beforehand via video and scouting reports … that’s all part of the big league package. I’m sure the team could find 250 or more plate appearances for him throughout the season, I doubt that’ll be a problem.

“I think the way you look at it is two-fold,” said the skipper over the weekend. “Is he ready to play up here, and can he help you win games? If those two things line up, then there’s a pretty good chance we’ll take that player.” Unless he falls on his face or Cervelli does his best Albert Pujols impression in camp, I’m all aboard the “Montero for backup catcher” bandwagon.

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  • http://twitter.com/bryanl26 Bryan L

    Meh, I’m not so big on him possibly taking the back-up job, even if he’s an upgrade over Cervelli. It still feels like he should be getting AB’s early at Scranton, at least for the first couple months of the season. If they end up calling him up during July or something as a back-up, I’m down with that.

    • Andrew D

      I completely agree with Brian L. I am a season ticket holder for the Scranton Yankees and i think Montero needs to at least start off down in Scranton. He is an amazing hitter with average defense. As long as he gets off to a good start and gets hot like i watched him play all last year he should be a yank by july

      • Mister Delaware

        Who’s going to the after party at the Woodlands?!?!?!?

    • Brian in NH

      and you know…he started so slow last year at AAA. Just let him play there a little bit since he only really had half a year of decent play.

  • Mister Delaware

    Giants pitchers seemed to trust Posey enough last year. If Montero beats out Martin or Martin (or Posada) is hurt, I’m all for Montero in the Bronx. Otherwise, I want him at AAA getting regular PAs and experience behind the plate.

  • Monteroisdinero

    And if he comes North with the Yanks-Cervelli goes to Scranton? I too heard Girardi talk about the benefits of being a backup all season. Martin may be an injury waiting to happen considering his recent history. Montero could play more than we would think.

  • Bill O.

    I can’t see it happening. Let Jesus get regular work in AAA both offensively and defensively and call him up mid season when the team can reap an extra year of team control out of him.

    I know the team is committed to Jorge at DH, but I’d be fine getting him some work at backup C too to give someone like ARod or an OF a half day off. Although Cervelli was our backup (and sometimes starter) for all of last year. It won’t really hurt us to go another month or so with him in that role.

  • http://www.bronxbombersbeat.com Brian

    Great post! I have to admit, I am a Cervelli fan; however, that doesn’t mean I want him to take over the everyday roll anytime soon. His youthfulness, and energy bring a lot to the team, which makes him very likable. His offense and defense doesn’t impress me though. He threw out 14% of steal attempts (9-for-55). While Montero’s defense is being questioned, he had a pretty good year for Scranton-Wilkes Barre last year with a .992 fielding percentage and throwing out 23% of steal attempts (30-for-99). I say give him a shot!

    • Nigel Bangs

      I like Cervelli, I just don’t like his offense or defense. How true!

  • pat

    How about Jesus Montero the Starting Catcher? He might have a legitimate case to be the best candidate.

  • jsbrendog (returns)

    so oaktag

    • jsbrendog (returns)

      damit! this was meant for the king felix nonsense above

      • jsbrendog (returns)

        wtf, how did i even end up in this thread?! my brain hurts. i thought i was in the previous one. disregard everything

        • pat

          Maybe you should sit the next one out for a while. Possibly stop sniffing so much glue before lunch.

      • bakekrukow412

        You mean my nonsense about Liriano/Felix trade? That was in the rumors are rumors article.

  • coolerking101

    Doesn’t Romine play a part in this equation? Unless Romine implodes or gets hurt, you have to assume he’s ticketed for AAA fairly quickly. Once Romine gets the bump to AAA, he and Montero will be sharing time at the catcher position again. If Montero is stuck platooning whether he’s at AAA or at the big league level, I rather see him at the big league level.

    On the other side, Cervelli looked really good for a while last year until he played everyday and got exposed. Having him as the backup for the first few months of the season will give the Yanks a chance to boost his trade value again.

    • The Real JobaWockeeZ

      Why should Romine who completely died in the second half of the season be a factor? A few more reps at AA would help him.

    • CS Yankee

      Romine hasn’t mastered AA yet, his power is down.

      Save 3-10M$ and keep Montero in AAA until June 1, unless Martin has a set-back. The Great Gazoo is decent and if Martin is doing his job, we’ll be alright.

      A few months of Romine & Dealin’ Dellin/ManBan should do nothing but help them all. Promote them in June at the earliest to AAA.

    • Mister Delaware

      You could also run a C/DH platoon for a month or two and save a couple miles on both their knees.

    • J

      Trenton got into Romine’s head last year. He had good road numbers but was putrid at home. They might want to get him out of that environment ASAP.

  • Fair Weather Freddy

    I agree that only way Montero comes north with the team is if martin is not healthy enough to be the regular catcher. Cervelli has proven that he is best suited to be the backup. He wore down when he played every day last year while Posada was hurt. Better to let Montero go to Scranton and play every day and continue to work on his defense, as we all know he will hit

  • http://www.twitter.com/ngoral Jake LaMotta’s Left Hook

    Joe Mauer is a fan.

    http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/.....s-montero/

    “My advice to him is try and learn as much as you can,” Mauer said. “He’s lucky he has Jorge Posada, a pretty good catcher to learn from.
    “And he has Russell Martin there now, too, another good one to help him. Those two guys that have been around the block. He should follow those guys around and learn as much as he can.”

    When Mauer began his major league career, he made a point of learning everything about his pitchers, including how they think. He advises Montero to do the same.

    • S

      now all we need is for someone to give Jesus’ his (Mauer) number and let them talk

  • Hughesus Christo

    Girardi’s dream of carrying three catchers for 162 games is so close. SO CLOSE.

    • CS Yankee

      Its a given…
      ‘sada, Martin & Cerv or Jesus.

      • Hughesus Christo

        Good point. FOUR catchers.

        • Mister Delaware

          Which means Romine won’t be able to gain knowledge and trust. Shall we go with 5?

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewLeighNYC Andrew

    Is it more valuable to have him already in NY getting a little taste of major league action and right there to step in should one of Martin or Posada get hurt, or whether it’s better to have him in Scranton still playing 5 games a week behind the dish and reliant on an opening in New York to be thrown fully into the big league mix.

    What will help him develop as a major leaguer more? No two players are the same, so perhaps Montero doesn’t need to follow the Posada breaking-in plan and can just be a “deploy when needed” player stashed away in Scranton. I personally think it would be better for the team to have him in New York from day one so that the lineup is still 9-deep on the days when Martin and Posada need a rest. Add that to the bonus of Jesus learning from Joe and Pena while also learning how to not die catching A.J., and it’s a win-win.

  • sal

    I’d love to see him play twice a week, selfish smile. I do wonder if Cervelli time in the Cano camp over the winter might have helped him enough to make him hit .300! I get the feeling if Cervelli is sent down he might might hit .320 in AAA and what. good problems

  • Ted Nelson

    Good stuff.

    I’m sure there’s a better wording for this, but… You can practice all day the wrong way and it won’t help you as much as taking a few reps the right way (something about practicing smart and not just hard?). I’m all for Montero starting the season in AAA, but at some point if he picks off where he left off in 2010 he may benefit more from supposedly better C training (defensively) and pitchers who challenge him (offensively) at the big league level than every day practice against inferior competition.

    It’s a fine line… My gut would be to start him in AAA, then if/when the two factors Girardi mentions align you bring him up.

  • kosmo

    I-Rod had 280 ABs his first season at the ripe old age of 19.No reason Montero couldn´t do the same. 175 ABs as a catcher and another 100 as a DH-PH. Why not ?
    Cervelli is probably traded away after this season anyway.Romine is a September callup in 2011 or an emergency backup if something goes seriously awry.

    • pat

      Personally, I’d rather he get like 400 AB’s playing full time in Scranton.

      • kosmo

        Does Montero really have anything more to prove offensively at Scranton? I don´t think so .His defensive learning curve will happen quicker at the MLB level being surrounded by a group of very experienced catchers including the coaching staff.

        • pete

          again, it’s not about “proving” anything or anything like that. It’s about the very likely possibility that he will get worse playing irregularly. Obviously, he has the ability to return to being a great offensive performer, but I would be very surprised to see him hit well playing sporadically and hitting against MUCH better pitchers than he has ever faced before.

          I’d rather he hit the major league ground running.

          • kosmo

            There is also the x factor that when given the opportunity at the MLB level he responds ,wrestling the job away from Martin.Montero isn´t going to be sitting around like Ramiro Pena.He´ll get 250-300 ABs which is certainly more than enough to keep him sharp.

    • Klemy

      Or by the trade deadline, if Montero is doing well.

  • Klemy

    I’m still leaning toward wanting him to start in AAA. I don’t think it would be too long before we could use in the bigs though either. If you can start him in AAA and bring him up in the case of an injury, you’re maximizing his development in AAA by getting him continuous starts.

    If he were to break camp as the backup, it wouldn’t break my heart either though. There is probably a lot to be said for what he can learn catching a couple days a week and learning from the guys we have there.

    I think I just needed up recapping the post…

    It’s a tough call and I could go either way with my opinion. I’m just excited that we’re at this point.

  • Dr. O

    he should be given a legit shot at winning the starting catching job, if Martin or (swallows nervously) Cervelli are looking like better options than I have no problem with Montero getting another summer of seasoning at AAA. Just saying, if the kid can bring some pop to the lineup and he can get the growing pains defensively out of his system and the Yankees wouldn’t be definitively better with another catcher it would be better for the team long term to have Montero playing in The Bronx in 2011.

  • josh

    He doesnt need ABs in AAA – he is a special hitter who can hit right now in the bigs and does not need to face pitching below his capabilities as a hitter. What he needs is to be tutored defensively by all time great catchers – JOE GIRARDI – TONY PENA – JORGE POSADA. Add in Russell Martin as a tutor and there is NO REASON that Montero should not be in the bigs. He will get 300 ABs here – more than he needs – and will get valuable lessons from those guys.
    And no – Cervelli is NOT GOOD Defensively or offensively.

    • pete

      two things:

      1. Posada is an all-time great offensive catcher. He’s always been mediocre at best defensively.

      2. It’s not about whether or not he could hit in the bigs right now, it’s about the value of hitting every day versus hitting twice a week.

      • Ted Nelson

        1. You don’t have to be great at something yourself to be able to teach it. In fact, the saying is that those who can’t do teach. I have no idea if Posada is or is not a good teacher/mentor, but I would guess he’s learned quite a bit about catching in his career. He’s also learned about having a borderline HOF career being a poor defensive C and overcoming defensive weaknesses… knowledge which may come in handy for Jesus. It’s really the totality of Girardi, Pena, Posada, and Martin that leads one to believe someone might help out Jesus more so than in an environment where there’s only one C guru. It’s a fairly intangible thing, especially for fans to speculate on. Yankees might have a better feeling about it, though.

        2. Do you have any proof hitting every day in the minors is better for a player’s long-term development than hitting twice a week in the majors? I can see an argument either way, so I would at least try to quantify historical results to see if any strong trend emerges. When you have a guy on the very same team who came up and played sporadically before going on to a borderline HOF type career… hard to say there’s any rule that players benefit more from regular AAA ABs. Pudge Rodriguez is an example of a guy who never OPS’d above .700 in the minors or his first 1.5 major league seasons and went on to have a career .800 OPS. I don’t think there’s any rule about needing to hit the ground running either, though again I think that a statistical analysis is needed.

        • pete

          I’ll admit my opinions are drawn from personal experience more than anything else – I always felt like I could hit anything when I was seeing live pitching multiple ABs every day, and felt like I had no chance when I hadn’t hit in a few days.

          But my point wasn’t so much that not hitting every day will make him worse offensively in the long run, just that it will make it take that much longer to get to that point. Players generally struggle for a while no matter how good they are even when they do play every day – one could only assume that playing twice a week would elongate that process.

  • sal

    I’d love to see him play some 1st base and just add to his playing time 50 as C 20-DH 7-1B to rest Mark. It didn’t hurt Alert playing everywhere.

    • mike_h

      then that sort of defeats the purpose of the Belliard/Chavez competition for the last bench spot if Montero is gonna be playing 1B

      • Ted Nelson

        If Jesus is a better 1B option than Belliard/Chavez/Vazquez/Laird/Posada/Swisher… then who cares? Belliard and Chavez are competing just to make the roster. There’s no guarantee you get anything for them. This season I would think it’s more likely Posada plays 1B and Montero DH if they want to get him more PAs, since Posada has actually played the position in the majors… but you knows?

  • pete

    I think you’re downplaying the significance of playing everyday in terms of offense. If you ask me, facing real live pitching every day, even if it’s at the minor league level, is WAY more important than whatever he could gain from being a bench player in the bigs right now. Honestly I don’t even think it’s close.

    • Ted Nelson

      Do you have any proof of that? Because it sounds like it’s just your opinion. There’s a counter argument that crushing crappy AAA pitching is basically like batting practice compared to semi-regular PAs against MLB pitching. I think an actual study of historical results would be much more valuable than people throwing around theoretical opinions. I have no idea which is the case, but would at least like to see if there’s a trend.

      • NJYankeeFan

        I agree that 250 ABs against MLB level pitching could certainly be more educational than 500 ABs against AAA pitching and working with Girardi and Pena could be invaluable for his defense and game calling.
        That being said, I think I’d prefer him spend at least a month in AAA so he could hopefully get off to a good start just for his confidence.

        • Ted Nelson

          Yeah, I think you probably start him in AAA. Unless the Yankees are thoroughly convinced he’s already way better than Cervelli. Especially if that’s the case and they’re not convinced Martin is a strong starting C… Now you sort of split the C duties between Martin and Montero improving the ML team and reducing the worries of Montero not getting enough reps.

  • AndrewYF

    Zero is how much I care about the Yankees saving a tiny bit of money on a player who, if he fulfills even half of expectations, they’re going to throw gobs of money at anyway.

    • http://hardballtimes.com Dan Novick

      It’s not just the money….

      If they hold him back for two months this year, they get a whole extra year of control before he becomes a free agent.

      • Ted Nelson

        Yeah, the control plus maybe saving $20+ mill if he hits his ceiling… That’s a pretty big incentive even for the Yankees.

  • David

    I think he starts in AAA, comes up in June, starts about 30 games from there, becomes the starter next year.

  • Angryankee

    What is the rush? Is it the difference between finishing as division winners or in the wild card? If the team wanted to plug young guys in early, I’d like to talk about the pitchers…

  • sal

    I think learning the pitcher, will be a big plus. I agree we aren’t like other teams looking to save money. Bring him up let him play as much as you can. Unless your going to trade him, you risk his value dropping if he hits .240 as a part time player. But if your going to keep him its can only help to work him is slowly. How many times have you seen a young player get a starting job coming out of the spring only to see the pressure of being the next star on that team get to him. besides the fat that i’m dieing to see him PLAY lol.

    As I’ve said in the past, I loved watching Cano the min he came up and looked forward to every At BAT . I could see he was going to be a superstar right away. I think he will have a better year this year.

    BUT BUT BUT as a 30some odd year Yankee fan I also though Jerry Kenny was going to be a superstar someday. might have miss judged that one a tad.

  • Greg

    Start Jesus in AAA if he is not able/allowed to win the starting job. Bring him up if Martin gets hurt and insert him as the starter. Keep Cervelli in a backup role no matter what.

  • Hurling Darvish

    Buster Posey was a 3.0 WAR player last year in 90 some odd games.`Optimistically, Montero could match that production. Hard to pass up that potential.

    • Hurling Darvish

      also, Posey played some of those games at first.

  • Brian in NH

    I see a lot here that says “Keep Montero in Scranton for a couple months”

    truth is, Martin isn’t so durable so theres a good chance we’d Montero making MLB plate appearances this year even if he did start the season at AAA. And the argument to keep him there until July to get an extra 6 months or so of cost controlled play is definitely a plus.

    wouldn’t be surprised to see him play in 30-50 games this year in the show, but i’m not betting on it at this point.

  • Brian

    You guessed maybe 50 starts at catcher if Montero broke camp with the Yanks. If that turned out to be accurate, how many DH (and maybe even 1B) starts you think the team would be able to find him on top of that? It probably wouldn’t be many since Jorge’s now the full-time DH and they’re still going to have to give Jete and A-Rod days there. That being said they’d at most be getting maybe 300 PA’s for Montero? Less probably? He had over 500 last season. Even with the benefits of being against better pitching that seems like a pretty steep decline.

    I think they have to at least keep him in AAA to start the season, just to get any early kinks like he had last year out of the way rather than having him sit on the bench. Then if a) he gets off to a hot start and Cervelli slumps or b) one of the 3 catchers gets injured, you have him waiting and ready. And isn’t there some benefit with arbitration by waiting too? Could be wrong, but I thought I read that somewhere.

    • Brian

      Ok, ignore that, couldn’t read the 2nd half of the article initially, all those questions were answered, haha.

  • virginia yankee

    why beat Montero up at Catcher
    – we lose his 21 yr season with JESUS rules as he LEARNS the position
    — we lose production with every Catching related injury, and
    – – we LIKELY lose the end years of a shortened career
    – – if BENCH was beat up and if MAUER is already felling the effects of catching why expose JESUS who is very late to the position and athletically/body mass limited
    – and because Montero will never be a defensive whiz why hurt career offense. The guy is supposed to be a Manny type hitter — seems like it would make sense to protect him

    Make him a corner OF or 1B — ARod is destined for DH — Tex was good at 3B he went to 1st when ARod moved Young to 3B at Texas — if Tex won’t move that becomes a different problem but watching him play 1B shows I think more that average capability to play 3rd — Youkulis does it — I have to rate Tex higher

    YANKEES MADE A HUGE MISTAKE IN NOT MOVING JETER TO 3B when ARod arrived — I think they are brewing another

    • Mister Delaware

      I can’t tell if this is parody or not.

  • timmyb72

    Montero comes up north with the big club. Too good a bat to waste in AAA.

  • http://myspace.com/bksmalls Smallz

    I am more and more apart of this bandwagon myself. People think its a bad idea cause he’ll “be rotting on the bench” but I dont see it that way at all. I look at what happened with Austin Jackson. They never called him up. They waited for him to be ready to start and then when it actually came time for him to do the job the Yankees had no idea if he actually could and traded for someone pretty much in the same mold just older. I like Grandy, dont get me wrong. Point is, they did with Posada why not do it with Montero?