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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 9, 2010 at 8:09 AM

All about Jesus Montero

With the Mariners apparently on the verge of a closing a Cliff Lee deal with the Yankees, I thought I’d present a little background on the guy who appears to be the key to the trade, catcher Jesus Montero.

At least, he’s a catcher for now. Many baseball people I’ve talked to don’t believe he’ll remain at catcher. They see him more as a DH/first base type. But most rave about his bat, saying he has superstar potential as an offensive player.

Baseball America rated Montero as the No. 4 prospect in the minors heading into this season, behind Jason Heyward (Braves), Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) and Mike Stanton (Marlins). They rated Montero’s power as being 80 out of 80 on their scale.

Just today, Baseball America came out with its updated rankings, and Montero is at No. 5, behind three outfielders (Dominic Brown, Phillies; Mike Trout, Angels; and Desmond Jennings, Rays), and right-handed pitcher Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays.

Here’s BA’s updated report on Montero, hot off the presses: “Montero hasn’t improved this year, and for some he hasn’t impressed. After generating positive defensive trends and reports at the end of 2009 at Double-A Trenton, Montero has convinced scouts this year that he won’t be a long-term catcher. He was leading the International League with 12 passed balls and was getting run on at will–87 attempts in 63 games, throwing out 19 (22 percent). He’s experiencing his first adversity offensively, but scouts are confident his bat will still be strong.”

Keith Law of ESPN had him ranked No. 10 in the minors and wrote: “Montero is really a “CINO” (catcher in name only), as few people outside the Yankees organization believe the giant player — listed at 6-4, 225 pounds, although he’s bigger than that now — can stay behind the plate, even with the improvement in his throwing in 2009. Montero’s ticket to the big leagues is his bat, and his hitting style is similar to that of another big guy who spent a lot of his career at DH: Frank Thomas. Montero transfers his weight early and hits off his front foot, but he generates tremendous bat speed and is so strong that he hits and hits for power regardless of the fact that he’s on that lead foot. Behind the plate, he has arm strength and has improved his accuracy, but he’s so big that he doesn’t move quickly enough to catch in the big leagues, and his receiving has never been a strength. His bat is so far ahead of his glove anyway that it might end up making sense for the Yankees to employ him as a major league DH soon rather than wait for him to develop as a catcher, knowing that there’s a good chance the latter won’t happen.”

Montero is from Guacara, Venezuela and doesn’t turn 21 until Nov. 28. This year, playing for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he is hitting .253 in 77 games with 33 runs, 19 doubles, three triples, six homers and 35 RBIs. He has struck out 54 times in 277 at-bats and walked 32 times. Montero has a .329 on-base percentage and .408 slugging percentage for a .737 OPS. Obviously, those numbers are well below expectations, but he’s 20 years old playing in Triple-A, so take them with a grain of salt.

Here’s Baseball America’s scouting report from last December:

Strengths: Montero doesn’t have a classic swing or textbook rhythm, but he’s gifted with hand-eye coordination, keen pitch recognition, a knack for barreling balls and tremendous strength. He can be out front or off balance on a pitch and still crush it. He covers the plate well and makes excellent contact. Montero hasn’t delivered completely on his raw power, but he’s close to projecting as an 80 hitter with 80 power on the 20-80 scouting scale. One veteran scout called him the best young hitter he has seen in years. Montero has solid to plus arm strength and threw out 32 percent of basestealers in Double-A, success the Yankees ascribe to his improved transfer and pitchers doing a better job holding runners. He even showed some 1.9-second pop times, according to one club official.

Weaknesses: Montero has improved under the tutelage of catching coordinator Julio Mosquera, but he still grades out as a below-average defender. The Yankees no longer talk about him as an everyday major league catcher. His defense frequently is compared to Mike Piazza’s, though he’s a bit more athletic. Montero is somewhat stiff and lacks agility behind the plate, leading to 11 passed balls in 59 games last year. He also threw out just 13 percent of basestealers at high Class A Tampa, and they tested him 108 times overall–nearly two attempts per game. While he improved, he has a long arm stroke that slows his transfer and detracts from his arm strength. His modest athleticism and below-average speed probably preclude a move to the outfield or third base, a position he played prior to signing.

The Future: In a different organization, Montero probably would just move to first base and mash, like Paul Konerko did when he came up through the Dodgers system in the mid-1990s. However, Mark Teixeira just finished the first year of an eight-year contract and isn’t going anywhere. With an older roster, the Yankees aren’t likely to break Montero into the lineup as strictly a DH. He’s expected to catch at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2010, mixing in time at DH and perhaps first base. He’s prime trade bait but also could be a complement to the New York’s veteran sluggers in short order–if the Yankees can find a lineup spot for him.”

If the Mariners do, indeed, land Montero, I think M’s fans should be excited. This team has an absolute crying need for more power in the middle of the lineup, and this guy has the potential to be an impact player. Whether or not he’ll remain a catcher seems problematic, but they still have Adam Moore as a fallback. He’s had a rough season, but I still like Moore’s long-term potential. Montero is first and foremost a hitter. If he winds up a first baseman/DH reminiscent of, say, Frank Thomas (as one of those reports compared him to), I’m sure the M’s could live with that.

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