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Hot Stone League

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

September 23, 2011 at 8:45 AM

Brian Cashman: Jesus Montero would have been best player “by far” traded for Cliff Lee

monteroap.jpg

Jesus Montero homers in a recent game against the Angels. Photo by Associated Press).

If you like vintage footage of the 1960s Dodgers — and really, who doesn’t? — then check out this clip, which features interviews with the likes of (surprise, surprise) Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Lou Johnson and Johnny Roseboro. My friend Jon Rochmis sent it to me yesterday in honor of Sweet Lou’s 77th birthday. It’s a fascinating time capsule.

I’ve said before that Jack Zduriencik’s decision to shun the Yankees’ offer in the Cliff Lee trade in July of 2010 will be out there for the whole world to judge. As the years unfold, we will be able to look at the two centerpieces — Justin Smoak, in the trade the Mariners accepted with Texas, and Jesus Montero, in the trade the Mariners rejected from the Yankees — and see how wise his choice was.

Of course, there are other players involved — Josh Lueke, Blake Beavan and Matt Lawson from Texas in the deal the Mariners consummated on July 9 of that season, and other minor leaguers from the Yankees.

In fact, it was the composition of the surrounding players that eventually squashed the Yankee deal, as I wrote during spring training after a visit to Yankees camp. I asked Yankees GM Brian Cashman how close he came to acquiring Lee from the Mariners.

“Oh, I had him,” Cashman replied. “The medicals didn’t work out, so they (the Mariners) jumped off, and Texas jumped in.”

What happened in a nutshell was that the Mariners didn’t like the medical reports on second base prospect David Adams, who was having ankle issues

Here’s what I wrote in March:

Cashman said the Mariners asked for the deal — which originally was to have premier catching prospect Jesus Montero, Adams and pitcher Zach McAllister going to Seattle for Lee — reworked. The Yankees balked, and the Rangers swooped in, offering Justin Smoak as the centerpiece of their offer. No hard feelings, Cashman says now, though there were reports at the time in the New York media that the Yankees were miffed with Seattle.

“It is what it is,” Cashman said Tuesday. “You don’t have a deal until you officially have a deal. Our guy, Adams, didn’t pass the medicals. They went back to the original stuff I had been saying no to all along.”

According to reports out of New York, the Mariners wanted Adams replaced with infielder Eduardo Nunez or pitcher Ivan Nova. Cashman continued to say no, and the Mariners wound up accepting Smoak, pitchers Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, and infielder Matthew Lawson from the Rangers for Lee and Mark Lowe.

Only time will tell if the Mariners should have hitched their wagons to Montero — described by some as the next Manny Ramirez, by others as both over-hyped and defensively challenged — or Smoak.

I bring all this up now because Cashman has given a pretty frank interview to ESPN New York, in which he says this about Montero and the trade talks with Seattle:

“I wanted Lee badly enough to move Montero. You take all the players traded when Lee went from Cleveland to Philly, Philly to Seattle, and Seattle to Texas, and Montero would’ve been by far the best player moved in any of those deals.

“But now I’m just happy fans have had a chance to get a better feel of why I was hesitant to make that deal. I’m not saying I was right in not doing that deal for Lee; that’s to be debated. But the young players we held onto have at least proven they were worthy of the angst as far as including them in a big trade.”

There are still questions about Montero’s ability to be an every-day catcher, but he has been impressive at the plate, to say the least, since being called up to the Yankees last month. Small sample size and all that, but in 13 games, Montero is hitting .313 (15-for-48) with three homers, eight RBIs, a .389 on-base percentage and .542 slugging percentage. (This comes after a fairly pedestrian season for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes- Barre in which he hit .288/.348/.467 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs in 109 games).

We now know better why Zduriencik was pushing for Nova and/or Nunez, by the way — and why Cashman resisted. Nova has gone 16-4 with a 3.62 ERA this season for the Yankees in 26 starts, while Nunez, being groomed as Derek Jeter’s shortstop replacement, played 105 games this year and hit .266.

Smoak, meanwhile, has had a difficult season, marred by the death of his father, a variety of injuries, and a prolonged midseason slump. In 117 games, he is hitting .237/.328/.400, with 14 homers and 51 RBIs.

It’s far too early to make any definitive judgments on this trade, or on the career trajectories of Montero vis a vis Smoak. The Mariners, however, have to be fervently hoping that Cashman’s assessment of Montero doesn’t hold up.

P.S. Read and re-read Cashman’s comments about his Carl Crawford ruse, and keep them in mind this winter as various teams are linked to the top free agents, such as Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes.

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