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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.

January 14, 2012 at 3:06 PM

The burning question with Jesus Montero: Is he a CINO (catcher in name only)?

monty.jpg

Few people have any doubts that Jesus Montero, the soon-to-be Mariner, will hit in the major leagues, and hit big. In the course of doing some research on Montero today, I saw him compared to the following players by various scouts, major-league executives, major-league coaches and managers, analysts and writers:

Miguel Cabrera

Manny Ramirez

Mike Piazza

Frank Thomas

Bo Jackson

Alex Rodriguez

Albert Pujols

Robinson Cano

Edgar Martinez

Joe Mauer

Bryce Harper

You get the picture. There is virtual unanimity in the baseball community that the Mariners have found themselves a bona fide middle-of-the-order hitter. At age 22, standing 6-4, 235 pounds with the proverbial light-tower power, Montero’s upside potential with the stick is off the charts. And Montero’s penchant for hitting the ball the opposite way — his first two major league homers, which came in his fourth major-league game, were both to right field at Yankee Stadium — make scouts confident that he can even conquer Safeco Field, notoriously tough on right-handed power hitters.

But the issue that remains very much in doubt is whether Montero can ever develop into an adequate major-league catcher. If he can, then the Mariners may well have hit a grand slam with Friday’s trade (pending physicals) of All-Star Michael Pineda and minor-league pitcher Jose Campos to the Yankees for Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi.

As a catcher with elite power-hitting tools, Montero would be one of the most coveted players in the major leagues. Throughout baseball history, there just haven’t been many members of that species, and they are superstars — Bench, Berra, Piazza, Fisk, Campanella, et al.

But if Montero’s defensive liabilities are too great, as many believe, and he has to move to either first base or DH (or a combination thereof), then his singular attraction as the rarest of breeds immediately lessens. Power-hitting first basemen and DH, while still highly valuable (particularly to the Mariners, who have found such creatures to be maddeningly elusive), are not nearly as precious as one who can hit 35 bombs, drive in 100 runs, and squat behind the plate. If his hitting tools are as advertised, Montero as a catcher is a generational talent. If not, he joins the much larger, but still coveted, pool of valuable sluggers.

I talked to two scouts today who have seen Montero fairly extensively in the minors. One said Montero will never make it as a receiver (“he’s just too big — he’s slow in all his movements, can’t make the transfer on throws, and has trouble blocking balls. It’s just not happening.).” But the other believes that he’s on his way to becoming an average defender behind the plate. (“Let’s put it this way — I’ve seen worse in the major leagues, and the one thing about him is he works hard to get better.”)

And I talked to two analysts I respect a lot — Keith Law of ESPN (who as far as I know coined the term “CINO” with regards to Montero) and John Manuel of Baseball America — who also have a differing opinion.

Law flat-out doesn’t think Montero will ever make it behind the plate.

“He’s not a catcher” he said. “I just don’t see it. I don’t think he has any of the things you’re looking for as a catcher, except arm strength. But it takes him so long to throw, that doesn’t play, either. If you can’t control the running game, you can’t catch. Piazza was dogged by that his whole career, and he’s a better receiving catcher than Montero.”

It should be noted that Law is a big-time Montero supporter even if he never catches, because he believes his offensive potential is so high.

“It took me a long time to come around on this, but he’s such a good hitter, it’s really not going to matter,” Law said.

Manuel, meanwhile, has followed Montero since the Yankees signed him as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela, and all the way up the ladder in the minor leagues. He’s not ready to write off Montero as a potential big-league catcher. Manuel sees him as possibly having a catching career in the Piazza mode (by far the most common comparison). He noted that Montero had just one error last year and led the International League catchers in fielding percentage.

“He’s kind of like a shortstop who doesn’t make a lot of plays, but makes the plays he gets to,” he said. “I don’t think he’d embarrass himself defensively if you stick him at catcher. If you stick him there 120 times, his weaknesses might be exposed. But I don’t see any reason he can’t catch 40 to 60 times a year. There’s a small chance this guy does have a Mike Piazza career — A bad defender, but it doesn’t matter, because he was the best offensive catcher of his time. There’s a chance this guy could be that.”

Here’s what Manuel is adamant about, just like Law: “Montero can really flat-out hit. I’ve never had one person tell me he can’t hit….He has a chance to be the Mariners’ best hitter for the next decade.”

That sums up why I like this trade for the Mariners even if Montero doesn’t work out as a catcher. That would be a huge bonus, of course, but if he becomes the kind of hitter that scouts believe he can be, he’ll be a huge asset to the offense-starved Mariners at any position.

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