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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 31, 2012 at 3:55 PM

Sluggers like Montero becoming more valuable as power declines in MLB

One interesting twist to the Jesus Montero trade (or as it’s known in New York, the Michael Pineda trade) is the premium that’s starting to be put on power-hitting prospects within the industry.

It’s indicative of the noticeable decline in slugging that’s taken place in the past decade — especially since meaningful drug testing was installed in 2006. Last year, 24 players hit 30 or more homers — up from 18 in 2010. In both years, there were just two 40-homer men. Compare that to the slug-happy year of 2000, in the heyday of what is now called the steroids era, when a whopping 47 players hit 30 or more homers, and 16 exceeded 40. That was a year after Mark McGwire hit 60 homers (and two years after McGwire hit 70), and a season before Barry Bonds put up his staggering 73-homer season.

Here’s a chart that lists the number of 30, 40 and 50 homer players in each season since 1998. The trend is unmistakable.

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Year 30 or more 40 or more 50 or more Leader
2011 24 2 0 Bautista 43
2010 18 2 1 Bautista 54
2009 30 5 0 Pujols 47
2008 28 2 0 Howard 48
2007 26 5 2 A-Rod 54
2006 34 11 2 Howard 58
2005 27 9 1 A. Jones 51
2004 37 9 0 Beltre 48
2003 30 10 0 Thome, A-Rod 47
2002 28 8 2 A-Rod 57
2001 41 12 4 Bonds 73
2000 47 16 1 Sosa 50
1999 45 13 2 McGwire 65
1998 33 13 4 McGwire 70

Let’s disregard any critique of the steroids era, and look at the new world order: Players who can knock the ball out of the park on a consistent basis are now a much rarer, and more coveted, breed. In fact, in many regards, they’re now considered as valuable, if not more so, than potential young ace pitchers. In a recent article, ESPN’s Buster Olney quoted a baseball official who said, “It’s becoming more and more difficult to find good everyday position players. It used to be that good young pitching was harder to come by, but now I think it’s getting more difficult to find the position player who can do everything to stay in the lineup every day.”

Jesus Montero has not yet proven that he can do that — or even that he has a position to play. But the reason I’ve endorsed the trade from the Mariners’ standpoint is that he potentially — with a capital P, true, but the potential is immense — fills a need that not only is widespread throughout baseball, but beyond desperate with the Mariners.

There are only three ways to acquire any player — via trade, free agency or draft. The Mariners, for a variety of reasons, haven’t been able to get a slugger via free agency (the last signficant hitter they signed was Adrian Beltre in 2005, and his experience may make future free-agent power hitters even more leery of taking their talents to Safeco. Prince Fielder, it appears, had no real interest in doing so, and the Mariners about the same interest in paying him north of $200 million). They haven’t been able to develop one (and traded a 30-homer guy, Michael Morse, to the Nationals in a regrettable deal). So the trade route was the logical way to go for a team that simply could not go into 2012 without addressing their woeful lack of offensive production. They are a team that believes they are blessed with a bounty of top-level pitching prospects, including Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.

In that context — with no big hitters on the horizon in their system, and fewer blue-chip hitting prospects available throughout the sport — I can see whey they agreed to trade a whopping young talent like Pineda. This would have been crazy to say a decade ago, but it’s much easier for a team like the Mariners to replenish their staff with a No. 1 or 2 pitcher than to unearth a big bat.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post, a reporter I’ve always respected immensely, wrote over the weekend about his trepidation over the deal from the Yankees standpoint. He wrote of the same trend I just discussed:

The No. 1 starter continues to be viewed as the Holy Grail of the sport. But what might be lost is that great hitters are becoming as rare to find. Maybe it is about fewer illegal performance enhancers in the game or, perhaps, we have ushered in an era of better pitching. The result is that offensive numbers are down across the board. For example, slugging percentage dropped below .400 sport-wide in 2011 for the first time since 1992. Consider that just 28 players who qualified for the batting title last year reached at least a .500 slugging percentage compared with 47 five years ago.

If Jesus Montero turns out to be the kind of slugger scouts think he is, and the Mariners staked considerable resources and maybe even a few jobs on, then he would be worth the investment of Michael Pineda. Even if Pineda develops into the ace we all saw the makings of last year.

In 2012, in Seattle, it was a risk worth taking.

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