Jesus Montero, Backup Catcher?

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.

A rumor is a rumor is a rumor

It started with a Tweet. Jim Bowden, General Manager-turned-XMRadio host, had been talking to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale when the baseball writer let slip something between a rumor and his opinion. In the shorthand of our time, Bowden reported that Nightengale “thinks its possible that Liriano is traded to the Yanks in nxt 2 weeks for Nova or Joba +.”

That simply sentence — 140 characters of juicy Spring Training rumors — set off a flurry of everything. Twitter exploded with conversation as readers emailed us questions. Could this really be true? Would the Twins be willing to ship out left-handed ace Francisco Liriano for a package headed by either Ivan Nova or Joba Chamberlain plus some prospects? Which Yankee fan would volunteer first to drive to Minnesota with that haul to its new team?

Yet, as we said just last week, where there is smoke, there is often a fire, and later in the day, we learned of a smoke condition. As Andrew Marchand reported a short while ago, the Yankees called the Twins over Liriano earlier this offseason, according to a source. The kindling is there. Anyone got a match?

But slow down. On the record, Brian Cashman denied any current trade talks. “I’m not talking to anyone about anything right now,” the Yanks’ GM said. “Nobody’s available. Nobody of value, anyway.”

Of course, knowing Cashman’s history, that probably means some trade will go down within the next few weeks, and all of those questions about the Yanks’ rotation will disappear like a puff of smoke. Or at least, as March dawns and Opening Day draws near, I can dream.

For the Yankees, Liriano poses an interesting question. If he’s healthy and devoted, he’s an ideal left-handed pitcher for the Bombers. He’s a high strikeout guy who’s given up less than a home run per 9 innings in his Major League career. He’s also only 27, and after battling an injury that shelved him for the entire 2007 season, he’s entering his prime and nearing free agency at the same time.

Yet, as has been detailed meticulous by Jay Jaffe on Baseball Prospectus (in a subscribers-only piece), the Twins and their lefty have a tough relationship. A long time ago, when Liriano was but 24 years old, the club publicly questioned his ability to communicate with the club. They have questioned his injury history. They have questioned his approach to strike outs (which, in my and Larry Rothschild’s book, isn’t something to question). He doesn’t fit the organization as well as he might, and that leaves many wary.

Yet, as Jaffe noted, the Twins should have no reason to deal Liriano. Writes the BP scribe, “There’s little reason to believe that Liriano has peaked, that he won’t deliver value for the Twins far in excess of Pavano and the other members of the Twins’ rotation, or that the Twins can’t afford him.”

And yet, his name won’t go away. The Yanks won’t part with Jesus Montero for Liriano, and they would have to think long and hard about dealing Manny Banuelos. Yet, if the Yanks need pitching and the Twins want to rid themselves of Liriano while the returns are high, they could get a nice haul. If that package starts with Nova or even Joba, though, no one in the Bronx will think twice about pulling the trigger. Whether Twins GM Bill Smith will settle for such a seemingly low-ceiling group of players, though, will be just another saga of Spring Training. This story won’t wrap up any time too soon.

Open Thread: February 28th Camp Notes

Nice try, Justin. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The latest from Spring Training

  • The Yankees fell to the Tigers by the score of 6-2 this afternoon. CC Sabathia, Pedro Feliciano, Manny Banuelos, and Mark Prior combined for five scoreless innings, but the two Rule 5 guys (Robert Fish & Daniel Turpen) and D.J. Mitchell stunk it up in the last three frames. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Jorge Vazquez each doubled once while Russell Martin drew a pair of walks in his Grapefruit League debut. Here’s the box score. Banuelos was sitting at 93 and touched 95. (Buster Olney)
  • A.J. Burnett hit Greg Golson in the head with a pitch during a live batting practice session on Sunday. Golson was taken off the field in a cart and tests were negative, though it turns out the morning sun had more to do with it than A.J.’s suspect control. Golson simply never saw the pitch. Burnett called Golson last night to check on him, but the outfielder isn’t sure when he’ll be back. The Yankees have stopped hitting on the back field because of the glare. (George King, Marc Carig & Erik Boland)
  • Derek Jeter asked Kevin Long to take some extra time to work with him tomorrow; he’s still adjusting to the revamping swing. The Cap’n is 1-for-6 with five ground outs in Grapefruit League play, and the one hit was a grounder that found a hole. (Carig)
  • Andrew Brackman‘s fine after throwing yesterday, and he expects to be back on the mound tomorrow following his little groin/hip issue. Martin will get one more game at DH and then catch either Thursday or Friday. (Boland & Chad Jennings)
  • The regular outfielders and Jorge Posada will make the trip to Bradenton to play the Pirates tomorrow, and Phil Hughes gets the start. David Robertson, Boone Logan, Jesus Montero, and a bunch of other minor league types will be there as well. (Jennings)

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The Nets are the only local team in regular season action, though there’s a replay of today’s Mets-Nats game on both SNY (7pm ET) and MLB Network (9:30) as well. You all know the drill, so go nuts.

A look inside the Yankees’ academy in the Dominican Republic

Yankees Magazine recently explored the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic, and the video is now up on MLB.com. The Yankees, like pretty much very other team, have educational programs set up at the academy that help their players not just learn English, but adjust to United States culture, be financially responsible, etc. The video’s about four minutes long and comes highly recommended. (h/t Andy in Sunny Daytona)

Update: No idea what happened, but the video isn’t online anymore. If anyone finds it, link it in the comments.

Jorge Vazquez’s Chances

You might have noticed this weekend, while watching the first televised Yankee games of 2011, that some pudgy dude was busy socking dingers. That was Jorge Vazquez. Signed out of the Mexican League prior to the 2008 season, Vazquez is in camp with the Yankees for the second time. Despite the display he put on this weekend, he stands about as much a chance of making the team as he did last year.

If you look through Vazquez’s history, you might wonder why he’s not a consideration for that final bench spot. He raked his way through the Mexican League, finishing with an OPS below 1.000 just once in his final four seasons there (and it was .988 that year). Then, in his first stateside season, he put on something of a display at Trenton, hitting .329/.357/.578 in 238 PA. The only thing holding him back, it seemed, was the injury bug. He missed 86 days in 2009 due to various strains and bruises.

Last year he, along with fellow former Mexican Leaguer Manny Banuelos, underwent an appendectomy and missed the start of the season. He hit .390 during his brief return to Trenton before heading up to Scranton. There he hit .270/.313/.526 in 316 PA, mostly as the team’s first baseman and DH. His discipline might be lacking, as he has drawn just 26 walks in 596 minor league plate appearances (4.4%), but his power remains prodigious; in AAA he produced a .256 ISO.

If Vazquez has displayed high batting averages and considerable power, then why is he nowhere on the Yanks radar? Why isn’t he under consideration for a bench spot? Why didn’t Baseball America write his name a single time in its writeup for the 2011 Prospect Handbook? Vazquez, it appears, is a case of scouting over stats. His style of play apparently won’t play well in the majors. We’ve seen this before with plenty of other players, but it reminded me of one specific player formerly in the Yankees organization.

When I first started writing about the Yankees, during the 2004 season, they had a guy raking in AA. Mitch Jones finished the season with a .246/.334/.548 line. The next year, in 2005, he moved up to AAA and continued to rake, .268/.347/.507. During that year I wondered why Jones wasn’t coming up to help. In 2006 I wondered even more. The Yankees outfield had suffered two major injuries, and they could have used a power bat such as Jones. They actually did call him up in late May, but sent him down after just a day on the roster. By year’s end they had designated him for assignment.

For the next few years Jones ambled around the minors, and even spent some time in Japan. In 2009, amid a torrid season in the hitter-friendly PCL, the Dodgers finally gave him his first pro plate appearances. He made 15 that season, going 4 for 13 with a double and six strikeouts. He was also hit by two pitches. But that’s basically the book on Mitch Jones. Vazquez could be headed for the same fate.

Chances are Vazquez returns to AAA this year and continues to produce quality power numbers. He might even flirt with a .300 average. But chances are, barring a crippling rash of injuries, he won’t sniff the bigs. Despite the numbers, the scouting report just isn’t there. Joe Girardi might have said it all, by saying really nothing at all, in response to a question about Vazquez. “If he hits a home run every day, I’m sure he’ll get the Grapefruit (League) MVP.” But he probably wouldn’t make the Yanks.

AP Photo

The RAB Radio Show: February 28, 2011

We finally got some live baseball over the weekend. The Yanks played two against Philly, and we got to see rookies and veterans alike. That leaves plenty of room for initial impressions. Mike and I run down ours.

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Observations from the first weekend of games

We had our first Haley Swindal sighting of 2011 this weekend. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Yankees played their first two Grapefruit League games this weekend, splitting a home-and-home series with the Phillies. It was great to see baseball, stress-free baseball at that. If it was the middle of the season, I’d be pretty upset over the two-run bloop single that essentially lost them the game on Saturday.

Anyway, we know that Spring Training games, especially the first few (when it’s still February) really don’t mean too much, but that’s not going to stop me from making some small sample size observations. I’ll go alphabetically for no apparent reason…

Dellin Betances

Changeup! (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The highlight of the weekend was easily Betances’ inning of work on Sunday. He faced four batters, striking out three and walking one. The television gun had him up 97 with the fastball, which a) is absurd for this time of year, and b) garnered a few helpless swings-and-misses. Chances are he was a little geeked up for the appearance and hitters just aren’t used to see that kind of velocity this time of year, but yeah, Dellin was electric. He was also wild and in obvious need of some more minor league seasoning. But still, damn was that fun to watch.

Joba Chamberlain

For all the talk about his weight gain, I mean sheesh, it was barely noticeable on television. Some other fans I spoke too said he looked bigger up top, around his chest and shoulders, but it’s not like he had a gut hanging over his belt. Joba changed his delivery somewhat, starting with his hands at his waist as opposed to his chest, something he said he started doing on his own and Larry Rothschild later okay’d. The television gun had him anywhere from 91-95, and he threw a lot more sliders than I expected this early in camp.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo wasn’t kidding when he said he needed to lose 25 lbs., the guy’s pretty chunky. He still brings the heat though, hitting a few 94’s on the YES gun, and he was throwing some kind of offspeed pitch in the low-80’s. Not sure if it was a changeup or splitter, but it moves down and away from lefties. It was just one outing, but it kinda reinforced the notion that it’s tough to be optimistic about his chances of being a viable starter in the big leagues this year.

Brett Gardner

The gritty one didn’t take the bat off his shoulder until the fifth pitch of his fourth plate appearance of the spring. He drew a five pitch walk in his only trip to the plate on Saturday, then walked on four and five pitches in his first two at-bats on Sunday, respectively. After working a 3-1 count in his third plate appearance yesterday, he finally swung at a pitch, a fastball on the outer half, slapping it down the left field line for a legit double (meaning it would have been a double for anyone, not just a fast guy). That swing also featured a two-hand follow through, not the one-handed helicopter thing he had going on last year. I’m glad Gardner is still showing that mega-patient approach against rusty pitchers, though I will continue to hate seeing him let hittable pitches go by in hitter’s counts.

Cured. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Curtis Granderson

The Grandy-man went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts on the weekend, but the one was a two-run opposite field homerun. Opposite field homers are far from routine for the Yankees center fielder; he’s hit zero in that direction over the last two seasons, and just three total since the start of the 2008 season. Granderson went from an extreme pull hitter to using left field a little more after working with Kevin Long last year, so it was good to see that oppo homer. One ball in play (in February) means nothing, but I remain cautiously optimistic, just as I have been all winter.

Jesus Montero

The Yankees’ top prospect started behind the plate on Sunday and wasn’t tested defensively in any way. No tough balls in the dirt to block, no stolen base attempts, nothing like that. His first at-bat was his best of the day, when he fouled off four 2-2 pitches from Joe Blanton before ripping a line drive right at Placido Polanco at third. Montero’s other two trips to the plate resulting in first pitch ground balls, one for an out, the other for a broken bat RBI single that bounced through the left side of the infield. He’s definitely a big boy though, very tall and strong (looking).

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Ivan Nova

Nova looked about as good as a pitcher can look in February, facing six batters and getting four ground balls with a pair of strikeouts. He definitely hung a few fastballs if that’s possible, meaning they were belt high and right out over the plate. The problem we’re going to have with Nova this spring is that we really don’t care too much about how he looks early in the game, the majority of his struggles last year came the third time through the order. I doubt we’ll get to see him turn a lineup over more than once in spring, so it’ll still be an unknown if he improved in that department when the season starts.

Alex Rodriguez

Reports have Alex losing ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat over the winter and damn was it noticeable. He seriously looked like the A-Rod of 2006 and 2007, at least physically. That’s not to say he was big before, but he looks more … streamlined this year. I guess that’s the best way to describe it. Alex hit two balls right on the screws on Saturday, one right at the center fielder and one into the right-center field gap for a double. He looked to be running well on the two-bagger, much lighter on his feet.

And a few miscellaneous notes…

  • Melky Mesa totally looks like Alfonso Soriano in the box. Very closed stance, knees very bent, exaggerated bat waggle. Melky 2.0 definitely bore a resemblance to Fonsy.
  • Jorge Vazquez went way deep on Saturday (over the batter’s eye in center) and then went deep again on Sunday. The first one came off Yankee-for-a-winter Brian Schlitter, the other off Brad Lidge. JoVa’s rapidly becoming the 2011 version of Jon Weber.
  • Maybe it’s my shoddy memory, but I think David Robertson‘s leg kick was a little less exaggerated on Saturday; he didn’t pick his knee up past his waist.
  • Boone Logan was only throwing 87-89 on Sunday after sitting around 93 most of last year. It’s only February and it was the TV gun of course, but when everyone else was in the 90’s, Boone’s missing heat was noticeable.

So that’s all I’ve got the first weekend of baseball in 2011, which for all intents and purposes means nothing. I’m curious to see Joba’s and Nova’s next few outings, as well as Gardner some more. That two-handed follow through is interesting. Oh, and A-Rod. Because he’s good at baseball.