2011 Season Preview: Jesus Montero

(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.

Looking ahead to some 2011 milestones

The cool part about being a Yankees fan is all the history we get to witness. Last season we got to see Alex Rodriguez become just the seventh man to hit 600 homers (and the sixth to hit 610), and the year before we watched Derek Jeter march up the list of career hits as a Yankee, eventually supplanting Lou Gehrig as the leader. The 2011 season won’t be any different, with a few very big milestones on tap.

Everyone and their mother knows that Jeter is closing in on 3,000 career hits, and Ben did a fine job pinpointing when that historic hit may come. That one will surely take the cake, overshadowing any other noteworthy career accomplishments that take place. Here’s a few of those other milestones that have a chance to be reached during the 2011 season…

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

A-Rod – 630 HR & 1,900 RBI
Alex’s assault on various record books will be fun to watch in the coming years, and this season he has a chance to both tie and surpass former teammate Ken Griffey Jr.’s career total of 630 homers, moving him into sole possession of fifth place all time. He’s 17 long balls away from tying Junior. The RBI total isn’t as historic but is impressive nonetheless; just ten men have driven in 1,900 or more runs in there careers. A-Rod is just 69 away from that total, and if drives in a hundred runs on the nose, he’ll end this season in sole possession of eighth place on the all-time RBI list, right between Ty Cobb (1,938) and Jimmie Foxx (1,922). Only three men have ever driven in 2,000 runs in their careers (Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Cap Anson), a group Alex is on pace to join a year from now.

Mariano Rivera – 600 saves
Trevor Hoffman lays claim to the most saves in baseball history, but I think everyone agrees that Rivera is best closer reliever the game has ever seen. He notched his 500th career save against the Mets in 2009, but he’ll need some serious help getting to 600 this summer: he’s 41 away. That doesn’t sound like much, but Mo has saved 40+ games in a single season just once in the last five years. With his age continually creeping up and Rafael Soriano there to vulture some save opportunities (I don’t think we’ll see Mo work three consecutive days all that often in 2011), this one might be on hold until 2012.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Mark Teixeira – 300 HR & 1,000 RBI
Last season we watched Tex club his 250th career homerun on his 30th birthday, and he now sits just 25 away from that nice round number, number 300. He’s also 94 RBI away from a thousand on his career, another nice round number. There are 122 members of the 300/1,000 club, but just 41 did it before their 32nd birthday. Barring injury or a total offensive breakdown, Tex will make it 42 this year.

CC Sabathia – 170 wins
We all know that wins are a stupid way to evaluate pitchers, but I do think they are somewhat telling over the course of a career. A high win total speaks to longevity, durability, and an overall positive performance, otherwise the guy wouldn’t have kept a job. Even if you don’t agree, the players appreciate the stat and put stock in their career totals. Sabathia is still only 30 years old, but he already has more career wins (157) than Doug Drabek and Dizzy Dean, among others. If CC gets those 13 wins to bring his career total to 170, he’ll have passed guys like Ron Guidry (170, okay tied), Brett Saberhagen (167), and Sandy Koufax (165). The number of pitchers to win 170 games before their 32nd birthday in the expansion era is just 16, and 13 of them either are or will be in the Hall of Fame.

* * *

Those are the big numbers, the ones with some historical value, be it large or small. Here’s a few other miscellaneous milestones, ones that will have more value at the personal level…

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Pedro Feliciano – 500 appearances
Relievers are so damn volatile and have such short shelf lives that 500 career appearances in the big leagues really is an accomplishment. Hell, one appearance in the show is an accomplishment. Feliciano needs to get into just 41 games to reach 500, a number 253 men have reached in the last 39 years.

Nick Swisher – 200 doubles & 500 RBI
Some more nice round numbers, Swish is 15 away from the former and five away from the latter. Hooray for him.

Brett Gardner – 100 steals
Gardner made up some nice ground on this minor milestone last season, swiping 47 bags in his first full season as a big league starter. He stands 14 away from the century mark, and if he doesn’t get that in April, send him to the minors. (Kidding)

Freddy Garcia – 150 wins
Getting halfway to 300 is a pretty big accomplishment, but I think we’d all be stunned if Sweaty Freddy a) wins the necessary 17 games in 2011, and/or b) even makes 17 starts for the Yankees this summer.

Jesus Montero – first career everything
This should be fun.

The musical stresses of Spring Training

Mark Teixeira wants to rock, and he wants Yankee fans to know that every single time he strides to the plate in Yankee Stadium this year. The Twisted Sister, in fact, has been filtering through the TV broadcasts during Spring Training as well. So I take comfort in knowing that in 2011, Mark Teixeira wants to rock just as much as he did in 2010 and 2009.

Teixeira isn’t so stuck in his ways. As he explained last year to ESPN, he has mixed it up with his tunes over the years. He used to play Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” and added Pearl Jam’s “Alive” to his Bronx rotation in 2010. Even still, he always just wants to rock.

The Yanks’ first baseman though is a stalwart among changing tastes. As Mark Feinsand and the dear departed Fack Youk explored last May, the Yankee lineup featured an ever-changing mix of current hits and classic tracks. The Baseball Gods cursed Nick Johnson for his using Miley Cyrus during baseball games while Derek Jeter and A-Rod come to bat to their latest favorite. “This Is Why I’m Hot” gave way to “The Way I Live” for A-Rod one year. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

Inside the stadium, we used to be welcomed to the jungle by Axl Rose and Co. before every game. These days, Nelly reminds us that the Yanks have the heart of a champion, and the dulcet tones of Bobby Darin still remind us that it’s Sunday in New York. Those tracks are run by board operator Mike Bonner, but the players generally pick their own songs. It’s a process.

On Monday evening, Curtis Granderson — with some help from 12 Angry Mascots — let us into the process and showed us exactly what song we’ll be listening to this season as number 14 comes to bat. The, uh, fun is well worth the three minutes and three seconds.

Yankees have some interest in Oliver Perez, dark sense of humor

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have some interest in Oliver Perez and have internally discussed bringing him aboard as a cheap sign. It can’t get any cheaper; whatever team signs Perez would only have to pay him the pro-rated portion of the league minimum. Little brother in Flushing is on the hook for basically all of his $12M salary this year.

I always say there’s no harm in a minor league contract/league minimum big league contract, but I understand if it’s tough to see any upside here. Perez, even though he’s still just 29, is done, like done done. He’s been throwing 85 mph nothingballs in camp the last few weeks, and the last time his FIP even approached the league average was 2007. There’s very little to like here; at least Bartolo Colon is showing something this spring. Heyman says that Brian Cashman isn’t terribly enthused by Ollie, and let’s hope his superiors feel the same way.

ST Game Thread: Banuelos on the bump (I think)

(Getty Images/Al Bello)

Surprise! The Yankees’ game is on the televisions tonight. MLB Network sent out a release this morning that tonight’s game against the Rays in Port Charlotte will being airing live on their fine network. The game was originally going to be broadcast on a tape delay at some Mo-awful hour of the night. Here’s the starting nine…

Brett Gardner, CF
Derek Jeter, DH
Jorge Posada, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robbie Cano, 2B
Russell Martin, C
Ramiro Pena, SS
Eduardo Nunez, LF
Justin Maxwell, RF

Available Pitchers: Bartolo Colon, Manny Banuelos, Romulo Sanchez, Steve Garrison, Eric Wordekemper, Ryan Pope, Cory Arbiso, and Pat Venditte. Pat Venditte!

Available Position Players: Austin Romine (C), Brandon Laird (1B), Kevin Russo (2B), Doug Bernier (SS), Jorge Vazquez (3B), Jordan Parraz (LF), and Melky Mesa (CF).

Again, the game can be seen on MLB Network at its scheduled start time of 7:05pm ET. Enjoy.