Mailbag: Ibanez, Montero, Closer, Martin

Just five questions this week, and the answers aren’t even that long. So yeah, pretty straight-forward mailbag. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything, including mailbag questions.

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Dan asks: Let’s say Raul Ibanez gives the Yankees a good reason to release him, thus giving Russell Branyan, Bill Hall, etc. a shot of making the team. What would the Yankees have to pay Ibanez?

Assuming it’s a guaranteed big league contract, which is probably is, the Yankees would have to pay Ibanez the full $1.1M no matter when they cut him. If it’s not a guaranteed deal, they could release him by March 19th and only pay him 30 days termination pay (~$191,860), or 45 days termination pay (~$287,790) if they release him between March 20th and Opening Day. If it’s non-guaranteed and they released him after Opening Day, they’re on the hook for the full $1.1M. Like I said, chances are it is a guaranteed contract (Eric Chavez‘s is) and they owe him everything regardless.

Arnold asks: Why do I get the feeling that the Yanks never intended to keep Jesus Montero? Supposedly, they were concerned about keeping the DH slot open for the senior citizens, but now that Montero’s gone, they sign every octogenarian in sight (see Ibanez) to clog up the DH slot. Will the youngsters ever get a chance in this organization?

I can understand why you feel that way, but I don’t necessarily agree with it. I do think the Yankees have been overly cautious promoting youngsters to the big leagues over the last two or three years after being overly aggressive in the past, almost like they’re overcompensation by going from one extreme to the other. It’s not like they gave Montero away though, the only time his name popped up in (legitimate) trade rumors was when there was a bonafide ace (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) or a young hurler with that kind of upside (Michael Pineda) on the table.

It’s not easy integrating young players into the ultra-competitive AL East though, especially with this ham-fisted “win the World Series or the season is a failure” mentality embedded in the fanbase. Growing pains and are tough to stomach when you’re trying to win the World Series.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Daniel asks: If this is indeed Mariano Rivera‘s last season, next season the Yankees have Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, and now David Aardsma as well as various minor leaguers vying for the closer position. None of them are Rivera and no one ever will be, but as far as closer options go, the Yankees wont be in too bad a position will they?

No, I don’t think so. Not only do they have plenty of quality in-house closer candidates, but they also have the means to go out and get an established closer (Ryan Madson? Joakim Soria?) if they want (I’d rather see them exhaust the in-house options first). Replacing Rivera’s production will be hard but not impossible, at least in terms of save percentage and actually recording that 27th out for the wclosing out games for the win. No one will be as utterly dominant and flawless as Mo, of course.

The one thing no one will ever be able to replace is the sense of security Rivera provides. No matter how chaotic the situation or big the game, there is never a sense of unease when Mo’s on the mound. I can’t imagine anyone will ever make us feel that way again. I hope he doesn’t retire after the season, but if he does, the team is well-prepared to replace him. It just won’t be as pretty.

Alec asks: With recent news about Russell Martin’s extension talks and Yadier Molina’s talks of extension with the Cardinals, I hope neither signs so the options are open for the Yankees in 2013. I know you value Miguel Montero a bit better than Martin since he is a better hitter, but what do you think about Yadi? I prefer him over Martin, Montero, and Mike Napoli in the 2013 FA crew. Cash must think otherwise since he is trying to extend Martin. Your take?

I’d rank those four guys: Napoli (moderate gap) Montero (small gap) Molina (small gap) Martin. I do value catcher defense but I also don’t think it’s the most important thing in the world, so the two defense-first guys lag behind the big bats for me. Yadi would be an upgrade over Martin especially if he shows that last year’s offensive spike (.349 wOBA) is a real thing during his peak years, but the big question is money. I have a feeling Molina’s going to get huge bucks only because the Cardinals won’t want to lose him after losing Albert Pujols.

Martin’s not the best catcher in the league, but he’s better than the average catcher offensively and is a strong defender. The Yankees also value makeup, and Russ does come across as a tough dude. I’ve thrown out that three-year, $25-30M deal for Martin with these rumors in recent weeks, and that’s pretty much my limit. Joe Torre ran him into the ground earlier in his career and I worry that a big crash is coming in his early-30’s. Ideally, Martin would mentor Austin Romine for a few years then hand over the reigns. Molina’s a great catcher, but I think I’d rather have Martin at his price than Yadi at his, especially if the Cardinals get desperate.

Mike asks: Where would Rafael DePaula have ranked in your top 30 prospects if he had obtained his visa?

If he’d have gotten the visa this offseason, I probably would have had him in the 20-25 range somewhere, likely behind Nik Turley. If he’d gotten the visa last offseason and spent the entire 2011 season in the farm system throwing real innings, he probably would have ranked even higher barring injury, 11-15 possibly. The kid’s got a fantastic arm, but he’s losing a lot of precious development time.

Jesus Montero And Maturity

What the deuce are you staring at? (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Ten days after the agreement was reported, the trade sending Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners in exchange for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos was made official yesterday. The Yankees dealt away their best position player prospect since Derek Jeter, a guy most of us thought was pretty close to untouchable over the last four years or so. That wasn’t the case though, it never is. Brian Cashman is fond of saying that “no one is untouchable, but some are more touchable than others.” That continues to be true.

For starters, the Yankees have dangled Montero in trade talks several times in the past. They weren’t going to give him away, but he was out there if someone was serious about swinging a deal. The Yankees offered him to the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay during the 2009-2010 offseason, and of course there was the Cliff Lee non-trade fiasco. Other teams have asked for him over the years — the White Sox for John Danks, the Athletics for Gio Gonzalez, the Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez — and that’s just the stuff we know about. As much as we maybe didn’t want to believe it, Montero was very available.

We all know about the long-term position and defensive questions Montero carried, but chances are the team had some other concerns that contributed to their willingness to trade him. Allow me to excerpt The Star-Ledger’s Jeff Bradley

“A big-time talent,” [VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman] said of Montero. “There’s no one questioning his talent. But he hasn’t had a great year with the bat this year. We expected more, honestly.”

Newman went on to say, “The biggest deal for him is maturity. I’ve been doing this a while and I don’t know how you significantly accelerate the maturation process. You can put him around mature people, but he’s got a ways to go in figuring out how this game works and how this world works. He’s bright. I think he’ll eventually get it. The discipline and turmoil that he’s had to deal with is part of the process. You’ve got to deal with stuff. You’ve got to take the training wheels off. That’s what he’s going through.”

When asked if Montero had allowed his hopes of making the Yankees roster out of spring training last year get too high, Newman nodded. “He thought he had a chance to make the team in spring training. He thought he was the best player here at Triple-A last year. Now, he sees (Eduardo) Nunez is up there doing well. He thinks, ‘I was better than him.’ He sees Hector Noesi, Ivan Nova, and he thinks, ‘I was better than all of them, and they’re up there and I’m down here.’ I had a zillion conversations with him about that. But his case is not unique. These guys are down here reading the blogs about themselves, where even a few years ago, players moved through development stages in anonymity.”

Now, just to be 100% clear, these comments are not recent. They were made back around the trade deadline according to Bradley. It’s not like Newman is throwing Montero under the bus on his way out the door Red Sox-style, he voiced these concerns when the kid was still in the organization and six months before he was traded away.

The idea that Montero was “bored” in Triple-A this past summer is nothing new, but that’s not the only incident (if you can actually call that an incident) that involved a lack of maturity on his part. Remember, the Yankees did bench him for a few games in 2010 because he didn’t run out a ground ball, and they benched him again in 2011 because his play lacked “energy.” During yesterday’s trade announcement conference call, Montero admitted that Alex Rodriguez stepped in and threatened to fine him $100 a day last September because he wasn’t spending enough time in the batting cage. There’s the whole “boys will be boys” mindset, especially when you’re talking about kids this young after they were handed a boatload of money. I have no doubt a sense of entitlement comes into play.

The Yankees know way more about Montero and his maturity level — both as a person and as a player — than we ever will, and we really can’t say that they had legitimate long-term concerns about him with any certainty. I’ve always been of the belief that talents reigns supreme, and I’ll live with the occasional bad apple or grumpy player as long as he’s productive on the field. The Yankees seem to have placed a renewed emphasis on strong work ethic and makeup, and in recent years they’ve sought out players with those traits in free agency, trades, and even the draft. Maybe they felt Montero didn’t fit the mold despite his ability to hit baseballs a long way.

It’s Official: Montero & Noesi for Pineda & Campos is a done deal

Ten days after we learned that an agreement was in place, the trade is finally official. The Yankees announced this afternoon that they’ve acquired Michael Pineda and Jose Campos from the Mariners for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi after all four players passed their physicals. During the conference call, Brian Cashman said Montero “may very well be the best player I’ve traded,” while Pineda said “I never thought I would become a New York Yankee so early into my career.” It’s pretty funny that he assumed it was an inevitability.

The Yankees now have an open spot on the 40-man roster, but that will be filled rather quickly. We’re still waiting on the Hiroki Kuroda signing to be finalized, but last we heard he was still in Japan enjoying the offseason. His physical might not happen for a while. Andruw Jonesnew contract still isn’t official yet either. Make sure you check out our Depth Chart to see where the team’s roster stands. So long Jesus and Hector, and welcome to the Boogie Down, Michael and Jose.

Vetting out some thoughts on ‘the big trade’

Farewell Jesus, greetings Michael (Yahoo.com)

Like some of you (and some of us here at RAB), my head is still swirling from last Friday’s trade escapades. Cashman, in vintage ninja-like fashion, redefined the Yankees landscape in what seemed like a matter of hours when he elected to ship Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi off to Seattle in return for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.  Not only could the trade drastically influence the 2012 season, but it may reverberate for years to come on a number of different levels.

Frankly, I have not completely sorted out my thoughts on the trade yet; although, my initial response was some combination of bewilderment and panic. On the surface, the deal seems to make a great deal of sense for both teams though – the Mariners obtained a potential middle-of-the-lineup threat to aid their otherwise meager offense, while the Yankees theoretically acquired another potent arm to complement a rotation comprised of CC Sabathia and a bunch of question marks. Incidentally, both organizations received players that are very young and cost-controlled to boot.

While Hector Noesi and Jose Campos are certainly not the feature pieces of the deal, both offer some honest upside as well. Noesi will probably slot into the Mariners rotation and should deliver some decent production, especially in spacious Safeco Field. Similarly, Campos, a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher with a dazzling fastball, will likely qualify as a top ten prospect within the Yankees organization upon arrival. High-end bullpen pitching depth is never a bad thing, right?

Yet, general consensus here in Yankeeland seems to be that the deal was “good but not great” despite the fact that it clearly addressed some of the franchise’s obvious concerns. Some of the luster of the move was certainly dulled by the fact that we, as fans, have been captivated by Montero for quite some time now. He was supposed to be the next homegrown superstar after all, who would grow up donning pinstripes and ultimately retire to the Hall of Fame as a True Yankee™.  So as great as Pineda could potentially be, the loss of Montero is still bittersweet.

As if sentiments weren’t hazy enough already, Brian Cashman did his part to complicate the discussion further as he went on the record stating, “I gave up a ton [for Pineda]. To me, Montero is Mike Piazza. He’s Miguel Cabrera.”  Assuming for a moment that Montero does have that kind of ceiling at the MLB level (and boy that is a lofty assumption), what’s that worth to a team exactly?  I suppose it depends on the team’s needs first and foremost.  For what it’s worth, WAR tells us that Miggy has been been an outstanding player (only once in the past seven seasons has he delivered a fWAR value below five).   There’s only a handful of players in all of baseball who can deliver similar production consistently.

Even if Montero was relegated to designated hitter role early on in his career, at that level of production, he’d still contribute some serious value going forward. Consider David Ortiz; in 2011, he was valued at 4.2 WAR according to FanGraphs.  Also keep in mind that in 2011, there were only 24 pitchers total who could claim a WAR above four, and only 16 topped five.  Last season, Cabrera eclipsed the seven fWAR plateau —  a feat only pitchers Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Justin Verlander could claim.  So in the spirit of gross over-simplification, our hearts and eyes told us Montero carried huge clout, a point which Cashman reiterated right after trading him to the Mariners for some kid not named Felix.

Now, I generally tend to value very good pitching beyond very good hitting simply because of supply and demand, a philosophy which makes it easier for me to accept Cashman’s decision to pull the trigger (not that he needs my official endorsement). However, I also contend that elite talent (regardless of the role) should hold trump. The reason why elite talent is so tantalizing is because, by very definition, it’s a rarity.  If Cashman was serious about Montero becoming a generational talent, I sure hope he has similar aplomb in Pineda’s future as well.  Trading future Miguel Cabrera away for, say, Ricky Romero just doesn’t satisfy me.*

Realistically speaking, at this point, Montero’s a highly touted prospect who is still in the process of transitioning into the bigs. Although he had an exciting September, it’s probably unfair to label him the next big deal until he showcases some consistency. As for Pineda, his strengths are obvious but he’s also not without his flaws. We’ve all heard by now about his gaudy strikeout ratio.  We’ve also heard about his fly ball tendencies and the changeup that needs to develop. Nevertheless, he is definitely a very talented kid, and the Yankees were not likely to obtain that caliber of a player without giving up something comparable in return. Considering the value of other young cost-controlled quality arms, it would appear Cashman gave up a reasonable amount relative to the haul.

Cashman said that the trade will likely be a bust for the Yankees if Pineda doesn’t develop a viable changeup and become a number one starter. Those are some hefty expectations (that we all probably feel in the pit of our stomach to some extent or another). Then again, I’m sure Seattle is saying the same thing. Montero needs to live up to the hype in order to justify the loss of a pitcher who could become a bonafide ace; moreover, he’ll likely need to do it behind the plate for some folks to be truly content.  The uncertainty is the rub.  It’s the reason I flinched at the trade initially, and it’s also the reason I completely support the reasoning behind it now.

I know I wasn’t alone in wondering whether the Yanks could have had the proverbial cake and been able to eat it too. It’s plausible that the Yankees would still be dubbed the AL East favorite at this juncture if they had just signed Hiroki Kuroda and not made the trade additionally. Although the rotation would not have been as appealing in 2012 without Pineda’s services, perhaps the differential in run support would have made up for it.  I think we were all prepared to face that reality with open arms.

In the long run, hopefully we’ll wind up thanking Cashman for his foresight. Unfortunately, because baseball isn’t played in a vacuum, such hypotheticals are not only abstract but at times haunting. Only Cashman truly knows the true game plan, and he gets to make the tough decisions while only we get the benefit of being able to scrutinize his moves without the torments of accountability.

In any event, the wheels are in motion and there is no real option other than to embrace the future. Hopefully, the team does not lose interest in some of the other quality arms on the free agent market come next season **. There’s nothing more we can do but wait and see how this will pan out for the Yankees. For now, I’ll trust in Cashman’s judgment with optimism, say a fond farewell to the superstar-in-the-making we barely knew, and welcome with open arms the future face of the rotation.

* Please know that I’m not comparing Michael Pineda to Ricky Romero here.  The example was simply the first name that popped into mind for the sake of discussion.

** Just for the record, I do not expect the Yankees to skip out on elite pitchers next offseason should they be made available.

*** Apologies for my hiatus the past two months. Between work and wedding planning, my life has been rather chaotic. That said, I hope to regain normalcy in my daily routine soon and get back to posting at my typical frequency.  Cheers!

Open Thread: The Montero Write-Up

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Every year for the last five or six I’ve published my list of the Yankees’ top 30 prospects right before the start of Spring Training, and it’s a blast to look back and see how hilariously wrong I was on some guys. I wait until mid-February for a very specific reason, so I can take stock of the farm system after all the offseason trades have been made. As you know, Jesus Montero is on his way to the Mariners with just a quartet of physical exams holding things up, but I had already written up his capsule for the Top 30. Rather than just delete it all, I’m going to post it right here, right now…

1. Jesus Montero, C/DH, 22
Take a good look, because this will almost certainly be Montero’s last appearance on any prospect list. The Yankees and their fans caught their first glimpse of the wunderkind in September, as he produced a stout .421 wOBA with four homers in 69 big league at-bats in the season’s final month. That came after a sluggish May and June in Triple-A, during which time he was benched two games for a “lack of energy” as reports surfaced that he appeared bored with the minors’ highest level. Despite that, he set a career high with 22 homers in 2011 (majors and minors).

Montero’s calling card continues to be his mammoth power, particularly to the opposite field. That was on full display in September, when three of his four homers and two of his four doubles went out to right and right-center field. He also excels at getting the bat on the ball, at least relative to most power hitters (career 16.5% strikeout rate in the minors), though he doesn’t walk all that much (7.8%). All the hard contact he produces projects to a .300+ batting average down the line. There are no questions about his bat and offensive potential, but questions still surround his defense. Montero is big and slow behind the plate, and although his arm is strong, his throwing suffers because of a long release. The Yankees used him behind the plate just three times in September, instead deferring to Romine whenever Russell Martin needed a day of rest.

After five minor league seasons, the waiting is over for both the Yankees and their top prospect. Montero is slated to serve as the primary designated hitter in 2011 with occasional starts behind the plate likely in the cards, and he’ll be expected to replace some of the right-handed pop the team is losing as Alex Rodriguez continues to decline. The Yankees have high expectations for Montero as Joe Girardi showed by batting him fifth on a number of occasions down the stretch in September. We’ve been hearing all about this kid for years now, and now it’s time to see him in action. Tomorrow has finally come.

Here’s your open thread for the night. All three hockey locals are in action tonight, but you folks know what to do by now. Have at it.

Physicals still holding up last week’s moves

Via Jon Morosi and Bob Klapisch, the Michael Pineda trade and Hiroki Kuroda signing are still not official because some of the players involved have been delayed in taking their physicals. Both Jesus Montero and Jose Campos are stuck in their home country of Venezuela at the moment, and Kuroda is still at home in Japan. It doesn’t sound like either move will be made official this week, so we wait.

The emotion of a big trade

We goofed with the scheduling last night, and this was quickly buried by Larry’s post on the big trade. Just so nobody misses it, we’re bumping it back up top this afternoon.

Once upon a time, charting prospects took a lot of work. In the days before instant access to last night’s Charleston stats, Gameday at every Minor League park and Down on the Farm, devoted fanatics could subscribe to Baseball America and receive stats two weeks stale. The Yankees featured an “On The Way Up” section in their annual yearbook, but the names would come and go. Dave Silvestri, anyone?

Today, prospect hugging is a national pastime for better or worse. We can follow a player from the day he signs as an international free agent to the day his Visa clears to the day he makes his states-side debut. We chart the ins and outs and ups and downs of our favorite youngsters. We latch onto players we know only through reputation, a line in the box score, some scouting reports and, lately, Twitter feeds. Most, as a glimpse as one of our early DOTFs shows, do not pan out. Yet, we hug and hug and hug anyway.

Jesus Montero had been one of those players Yankee fans loved to hug. From a system fairly barren of impact bats over the past 15 years, Montero had been heralded as the Next Big Thing since he arrived from Venezuela as a 16-year-old. He couldn’t catch then, and he likely can’t catch now. But he was a big boy and could he hit. With a solid core and quick, strong hands, he can flick balls the opposite way and pull them deep into the night. If he clicks right, he’ll be great.

When Montero arrived in the Bronx this past summer, he put on a show. At a game I had the privilege of attending, he lasered two balls into the right field seats against the Orioles, and it seemed to be a glimpse of things to come. Until a few days ago, we had grown accustomed to the idea of having Montero as the everyday designated hitter in a lineup filled with guys otherwise nearing the tail end of their 20s. Maybe some even believed he could catch.

He’s gone now, though. In the brief span of a few minutes on Friday evening, as rumors of a trade swirled, the Mariners landed a player they had wanted for a while, and the Yanks, in turn, spun Montero into a cost-controlled young starting pitcher with a stellar Minor League pedigree and an impressive first year under his belt. At first, I didn’t embrace the deal. I didn’t like the idea of trading Montero for anything other than a sure thing. I wanted to hug him.

But as I parried back and forth with other fans, I came to view the trade through the lens of the game. It was the cost of doing business. Yanks’ GM Brian Cashman took a risk, as he reportedly admitted to ESPN’s Jim Bowden. He traded a highly touted bat for a highly touted arm. Both players are works in progress. Both could flame out; both could reach their potential. He may have gambled that Montero won’t develop into a player with much defensive value, and he may have been, rightly so, seduced by the promise of Michael Pineda‘s low price tag for the foreseeable future.

It’s tough to let go, especially when we’ve followed a player from Step One of a promising big league career. The jury will long be out on this deal (and if the Yanks want Montero back, well, he’s projected to hit free agency at the start of his offensive peak). But there will be other players to hug, to chart, to track, and the risk of this trade just might be the biggest gamble the Yanks have made under Brian Cashman. Embrace that for now, and hold your breath.