What Went Right: Jesus Montero

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Yankees had an ace up their sleeve all season. An ace capable of doing almost anything they wanted. Need a bat? A pitcher? Something else? Whatever the Yankees needed, Jesus Montero could give it to them. They had the option to insert him into the lineup if the offense needed help, and they also had the option of trading him for an arm if the pitching staff needed reinforcement. Thankfully, the pitching held up and the Yankees held on to Jesus.

The 21-year-old Montero started the season back with Triple-A Scranton, where he’d spent the previous year posting a .375 wOBA with a career high 21 homers in 123 games. He started the year off with a strong April (.365/.360/.473) even though he didn’t draw a single walk, but stumbled through May and early-June (.254/.327/.328). That led to inevitable questions about pretty much everything. His work ethic, his talent, his future with the team, you name it and it was questioned after the worst 205 plate appearance stretch of his career.

The Yankees benched Montero for two games in June due to a “lack of energy,” a few days after returning from an eye infection, fueling the narrative that he was bored with Triple-A life. Pretty much every prospect analyst dropped him in their midseason rankings. Brian Cashman admitted that Montero was a better option than incumbent backup catcher Frankie Cervelli shortly thereafter, but said the team was leaving him in the minors so he could play every single day. It was easy to twist that around and say he was being punished for the poor two months.

Montero returned to the lineup on June 13th, and like he’d done everywhere else in his career, he hit. A homerun in his first game back. Another hit the next day. Then again the next day. And again and again and again. After the benching, Montero hit .314/.376/.533 with 15 homers in 287 plate appearances, a batting line that looks an awful like the .314/.371/.511 he hit from 2007-2010, the first four years of his career. The second half surge put his final season numbers at .288/.348/.467 (.356 wOBA), and yet he had remained in Triple-A even though the Yankees were having serious DH problems at the big league level.

The Yankees finally righted a wrong (depending on who you ask) on September 1st, promoting Montero to the big leagues for the first time. They didn’t hold him back either, he started that night at DH in Fenway Park against Jon Lester in a game where a win would have tied the two teams atop the AL East. Montero’s first career at-bat came with the bases loaded in the first inning, but Lester struck him out. He didn’t have a hit that night, but he did get hit by a pitch in his fifth trip to the plate, and later came around to score the eventual winning run. An 0-for-4 debut is never fun, but it wasn’t completely unproductive.

Used primarily as the regular DH against left-handers, Montero picked up his first career knock in his second career game, a single to left off Ricky Romero. The next day came his first career two-hit game, and the day after that came his first two career homeruns. Both came off Orioles reliever Jim Johnson, a sinkerball specialist (61.5% ground ball rate) that had given up just one homer to a righty in the last calendar year. Montero hit both out to deep right field, showing off the opposite field power we’d heard so much about.

During the final month of the season, Montero hit .328/.406/.590 with four homers (Jered Weaver and Junichi Tazawa gave up the other two) in 69 plate appearances, earning a place on the postseason roster. He only batted twice in the ALDS, picking up hits in the late innings of New York’s Game Four blowout win. The Yankees only let him catch three times after the call-up, a gentle little reminder that there are still questions about his defense behind the plate. There are no questions about the bat though, Montero’s been hitting since the day the Yankees signed him, and his late season showing all but guarantees him a regular lineup spot in 2012, and hopefully many years beyond that.

Granderson, Cano headline MLB roster for tour of Taiwan

Via Sweeny Murti, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano are headlining a team of MLB players that will tour Taiwan from November 1st-6th, and compete against the Chinese Taipei national team. MLB has done oversees tours like this for a long time, mostly involving Japan.

I haven’t seen the full roster yet, but based on what I’ve been able to gather on Twitter, some other players that will make the trip include Jeremy Guthrie, Dillon Gee, Ross Detwiler, Erick Aybar, Jeff Mathis (hah), Logan Morrison, Emilio Bonifacio, and former Yankees Jose Veras and Mark Melancon. I’m happy Grandy and Cano are going, but I’m even happier that none of the Yankees pitchers are.

What Went Right: Bartolo Colon

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

Like a boss. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The panic set in as soon as Cliff Lee agreed to rejoin the Phillies in early-December, and then it multiplied when Andy Pettitte officially announced his retirement a few weeks later. The free agent pitching well dried up almost instantaneously, leaving the Yankees to scramble as they tried to fill out their rotation. They finally made a move in late-January, signing the long forgotten Bartolo Colon to a minor league contract.

“It’s nice to see the Yankees going after reclamation projects as back of the rotation possibilities,” wrote Joe at the time of the signing, “but I find it nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which Colon can help the team.” I felt the same way, and I’m sure many of you did as well. But hey, it was a minor league contract with no risk, and the Yankees had the benefit of Tony Pena‘s input after he managed Colon during winter ball. The Yankees had nothing to lose but time.

Colon started the first game of the Grapefruit League schedule in February, and something weird happened. He came out throwing bullets. I mean 93-94 mph with the four-seamer, plus a two-seamer that ran all over the place. Bart looked healthy and strong, and he continued to not just pitch well in camp, but show stuff that could get big league hitters out. When time came to trim down the roster, the Yankees decided to go with Freddy Garcia as their fifth starter, but Colon had made the team as a reliever.

The bullpen role was short lived. After three impressive long-relief outings in April, Colon moved into the rotation as Phil Hughes went down with what was then a mystery shoulder ailment. His first start came on April 20th in Toronto, when he gave the Yankees 6.2 innings of two-run ball. Colon struck out seven and walked just two, raising his season K/BB to 20/5 in just 18 IP. Seven days later he dominated the White Sox (8 IP, 1 R), and five days after that he held down the Tigers (7 IP, 3 R).

A few days after that start, we all learned Bart’s secret, how a 38-year-old pitcher that had missed the vast majority of the last five seasons due to major arm problems was able to come back throwing so hard and with so much movement. Stem cells. Colon underwent an experimental procedure in 2009 that used stem cells in addition to platelet-rich plasma treatment, a non-surgical procedure that took less than 40 minutes. MLB investigated the procedure because of HGH concerns, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, Colon just kept dominating.

After throwing a complete game shutout against the Athletics, Bartolo ended the month of May with a 3.26 ERA and a 62/15 K/BB in 66.1 IP. Colon was a full blown revelation, pitching at a near ace-like level five seasons after last being an effective starter. On June 11th, however, the comeback hit a speed bump when Bart pulled up lame covering first base on a rainy afternoon against the Indians. He’d suffered a strained left hamstring, an injury expected to keep him out somewhere between two or three weeks.

Colon was never really the same after the injury, and at first it was blamed on being apprehensive about the hammy. He had his moments after returning in early-July, specifically a five-start stretch from July 19th through August 11th in which he allowed no more than two earned runs any time out. Bart hit the wall in his final eight starts, showing reduced velocity and less command than he had a few weeks prior. Ultimately, he pitched poor enough in the season’s final month to be left off the team’s playoff roster, a damn shame if you ask me.

Despite the slow finish, Bart pitched better than anyone could have possibly expected. He held up long enough to make 26 starts (and the three relief appearances in April) and throw 164.1 IP, nearly as many as he’d thrown from 2007-2010 combined (200.2 IP). Colon’s 3.82 FIP was built on the strength of 7.4 K/9 and just 2.0 BB/9, a 3.38 K/BB ratio that was ninth best in the AL. Although his ERA finished at 4.00 on the nose, it was closer to 3.50 pretty much all season before the poor finish. At 2.4 bWAR and 2.9 fWAR, Colon exceeded every possible expectation, hitting on the best case scenario as a shot in the dark minor league signing. I don’t know what 2012 holds for him, but I do know that for the first four months of the season, Bartday was my favorite day of the week.

Mailbag: Montero, Oppenheimer, Sabathia, Bay

Got five questions this week, but two are pretty short. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send in questions in the future.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images North America)

Mark asks: Could Montero be taught how to play 3B? A-Rod seemingly will need to become the Yankee’s full-time DH eventually. Do you know of any player that converted to 3B with his body type and lack of athleticism?

The official site lists Jesus Montero at 6-foot-3 and 235 lbs., and you can count the number of regular third baseman that size on one hand: Scott Rolen (6-foot-4, 240), Alex Rodriguez (6-foot-3, 230), Ryan Zimmerman (6-foot-3, 230), Mark Reynolds (6-foot-2, 220), and Danny Valencia (6-foot-2, 220). Montero’s a touch bigger than Valencia and he’s definitely not in the same class athletically as A-Rod, Rolen, or Zimmerman. That’s for sure. Reynolds moved to first base late this season, so I’m not sure he counts.

Most guys that move to third base after their fourth or fifth pro season are failed shortstops or second baseman, middle infielders moving down the defensive spectrum. Brandon Inge did the “catcher turned third base” thing, but he’s only 5-foot-11 and 190 lbs. Realistically, the only place Montero can move is to first base or DH. If they want to try the outfield, then I wish them luck. It won’t be a quick or painless transition. A-Rod looked perfectly fine on defense in the ALDS, more than fine actually, it was his bat that slowed. I don’t think we have to worry about him in the field just yet.

Tucker asks: Despite the obvious loss that would be felt by Damon Oppenheimer’s potential departure, could there be some benefits towards having him elsewhere? He knows the Yanks system so if he goes to a team, such as the Angels, could we expect some trades?

We see this happen all the time, guys leave one organization to become the GM elsewhere, then they start stockpiling players they drafted or had with their original team. Dayton Moore’s loaded up ex-Braves in Kansas City (Kyle Davis, Brayan Pena, Jeff Francoeur), Jack Zduriencik brought in a number of ex-Brewers after hooking on with the Mariners (Russell Branyan, Bill Hall, Brad Nelson), and it seems like every trade Ed Wade has made as GM of the Astros has been with the Phillies (Hunter Pence, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge). The examples go on and on.

Is there a benefit to this know? Maybe. On one hand you can argue that the new GM is overvaluing the players he knows, but on the other hand you can say that he knows them better than anyone and is digging up the hidden gems. I would definitely expect some trades, but I don’t think Oppenheimer (or Billy Eppler for that matter, since he’s up for the same job) would just give his new players to his old team out of the goodness of his heart.

Shaun asks: Just a quick question, do you think the yankees would negotiate with CC Sabathia before he opts out of his contract or would they wait? I think they waited with A-Rod at the time and took a hard stance with him. I’d argue that they would need CC more than they needed A-Rod at the time.

I agree with you about needing Sabathia now more than they needed A-Rod then, but let’s not forget how awesome Alex was four years ago. Anyway, I’m sure they would be open to negotiating with CC at some point soon, even though the company line is to wait until the contract is over. That would eliminate the hassle of the open market, and as we heard last night, the Rangers are prepared to get involved. Let’s put it this way, the Yankees have nothing to lose by talking to him about an extension beforehand.

(Photo Credit: ESPN)

Kevin asks: What about an A.J. Burnett for Jason Bay swap?

We’ve gotten this question a number of times, and apparently it all started with some MSM article that was published during the summer. I’m not quite sure what the goal is here, is the plan to put Bay in right and trade Nick Swisher for a pitcher? Swish alone won’t fetch a legit number two starter just because he’s a year away from free agency. The net result would end up being Burnett, Swisher, and prospects for Bay and an unknown number two starter.

Burnett’s terrible, you don’t have to tell me that, but so is Bay. As an added bonus, he’s now injury prone as well. This isn’t just a CitiField thing either folks; since joining the Mets, Bay has a .358 wOBA at home and .296 on the road. I don’t but into the idea that getting him back on the contender with somehow reinvigorate him, and I can’t imagine the Yankees will fall for that either. The deal also doesn’t work in the Yankees favor with regards to contracts. Bother are locked up for the next two years (Bay at $32M, Burnett at $33M), but Bay has an easily vesting option for 2014 (Omar Minaya’s specialty). All it takes is 500 plate appearances in both 2012 and 2013 or 600 plate appearances in 2013 alone. You’d end up trading for the guy, then hoping he doesn’t play much the next two years to prevent the option from kicking in. No win situation.

As terribad as A.J. is, the Yankees aren’t exactly in a position to trade pitching for offense, even if the corresponding move is to trade Swisher for an arm. There would be no winners in this trade, so I’d rather stick with the devil I know rather than the devil I don’t.

Dan asks: Which roster player(s) would you trade for a legitimate #2 starter?

This depends on our definition of number two starter, but I’d trade pretty much everyone other than Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, CC Sabathia, and Jesus Montero for that kind of pitcher. When I think of a number two starter, I think Matt Garza, Jamie Shields, Matt Cain, John Danks … guys like that. That’s just me though, you’re welcome to feel differently.

Report: Texas ready to throw a “boatload” of cash at CC

Once Brian Cashman inks a new deal at some point in the near future, priority number one for the Yankees will be to get CC Sabathia re-signed after he inevitably opts out of his contract. Once that happens, then the rest of the offseason can really start to take shape. No team will be able to offer Sabathia more money the Yankees, but according to ESPN New York, the Rangers sure are going to try…

“I hear they’re going to throw a boatload of money at him,” said the source, who requested anonymity, “But I think he’ll stay with the Yankees. He’s talked so much about how much he loves New York, and besides, the Yankees can’t afford to lose him from that pitching staff.”

Like the Yankees, the Rangers were left with Cliff Lee money in their pocket last offseason, but they gave a bunch of it to Adrian Beltre ($80M, to be exact). They also have incumbent lefty ace C.J. Wilson up for free agency, but I’m sure they’re willing to let him walk in exchange for adding Sabathia. In fact, they’d even gain a draft pick in that scenario (lose one for signing CC, gain two for losing C.J.).

In reality, there’s not much news here. Pretty much every big market team will have their eye on Sabathia when he hits free agency, and Texas showed a willingness last offseason to spend big bucks under their new Nolan Ryan-led ownership group. They’ll make an aggressive push, put a little pressure on the Yankees (as well as Wilson and his agent), but I gotta believe they’d really have to blow Sabathia out of the water for him to consider uprooting his family for the second time in three-plus years. I’m not saying the Rangers won’t be a serious bidder, but I don’t think this will be as wide open as the Lee talks were.

Joba Update: Throws from 60-feet start Monday

Via the man himself, Joba Chamberlain is scheduled to throw from 60-feet for the first time on Monday. He’ll make 75 throws from 45-feet tomorrow, and continue to stretch out to about 180-feet. Joba started his throwing program late last month, and so far he’s right on schedule in his Tommy John surgery rehab, if not a touch ahead. This wasn’t a good year for the big guy, but I’m excited to have him back at some point next year. Joba continues to be a personal fave.