(That’s Jesus Montero being schooled in Tampa today by Yankee coach Tony Pena on blocking balls in the dirt, while other Yankee catchers watch, including Jorge Posada in the center of the group of three off to the side).
For a long time to come, fairly or unfairly, Justin Smoak’s progress is going to be measured against that of Jesus Montero, the Yankees catching prospect whom the Mariners almost landed last year. That is, until their July 9 deal with the Yankees for Cliff Lee unraveled. The sticking point was the health of minor-league second baseman David Adams — and it turns out the Mariners were correct to have questions. Adams had been having ankle issues that were later revealed to be a fracture, ending his season.
The two sides couldn’t agree on a substitute for Adams, so the Mariners turned to the Rangers, and ultimately accepted the package headed by Smoak. Scouts I’ve talked to tend to be divided on the Smoak vs. Montero question. Some absolutely love Montero’s upside, believing he’ll eventually have a Manny Ramirez-impact bat. Others question whether Montero will ever cut it defensively behind the plate. Similarly, some see Smoak as a perennial All-Star, others as someone with holes in his swing and some defensive questions. The beauty is that time will provide the answer.
(That’s Montero flanked by Tony Pena as he prepares to head to the batting cage for some swings)
I had a chance to both talk to, and observe, Montero today in Yankees camp. At 6-feet-4, 225 pounds, he’s quite an impressive physical specimen, and with a bat in his hands, I can understand the excitement. Just 21, Montero has true light-tower power, and sent a few blasts out of the yard today in BP at Legends Field. Behind the plate, all I saw was him catching a few bullpen sessions. Not much challenge there. He then went to an intense drill with Yankee coach Tony Pena, who was animatedly instrucing him on blocking balls in the dirt. General manager Brian Cashman would later say that manager Joe Girardi — a catcher himself — commented today that Montero already looks markedly better behind the plate.
I asked Montero what he thought when the trade rumors with Seattle heated up last July.
“I was thinking good things, but I want to stay with the Yankees,” he replied. “Everyone wants to play for the Yankees. But they had to make a decision. I was waiting for the decision. They said, ‘No, you’re going to stay with your team still.’ I was happy.”
For a period, Montero acknowledged, he thought he was headed to Seattle.
“I thought I was going to go there. I was happy for that, too. But things happen, and I’m comfortable with that decision.”
His goal, he said, is to make it to the big leagues this year. That path became more difficult when the Yankees, who had already decided to consign Jorge Posada to full-time designated hitting, signed former Dodger Russell Martin as a free agent. It’s unlikely the Yankees would want Montero to play sparingly as a No. 2 catcher at this stage of development, so he’s likely to go to Triple-A unless Martin can’t recover from last year’s hip and knee issues.
“I’ve been working really hard,” Montero said. “I want this to be my year. I want to show everyone I can catch in the big leagues, and hit. That’s what I’ve been doing the last couple of years, learning to catch, to call pitches.”
Cashman said the Yankees had planned to turn their catching position over to their youngsters, with Montero, Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli as contenders. But Martin proved too enticing. Cashman said being a young catcher under the intense media and fan scrutiny of New York is even tougher than being a young pitcher.
“It allows me, instead of turning it fully over to the kids and needing them to be ready, now I can wait and allow them to develop and they’ll declare when they’re ready,” Cashman said. “If they declare they’re ready, and they take something from somebody, so be it.
“But we feel very comfortable with Russell Martin here. I think it’s the best of all worlds. I have a deeper trade war chest to go to if I have to, whether it’s coming from the major-league side or the minor-league prospect side.”
Asked to compare Montero at this stage of his career to Posada, Cashman said it was unfair to do so.
“We thought Posada was special. We think Montero is special. We were right on Posada, and I think we’ll be right on Montero. But Posada transferred that potential into reality. Montero is still doing that.”
It will be interesting to watch his progression this season.