Another Possible Option for Jesus Montero
A little over a month ago, I noted that the progression of John Jaso and Mike Zunino meant that there was no real reason to continue pretending like Jesus Montero had a future as a catcher in this organization. Projecting him as a regular catcher was always a big reach anyway, and now that the Mariners had better options both now and in the future, the decision to convert him into a first baseman seems obvious. The Mariners don’t have any real first base prospects in the organization, and Montero’s lack of athleticism could be somewhat hidden at the easiest spot on the field to defend. There’s also some hope that allowing him to just focus on hitting, rather than futilely trying to improve his defense behind the plate, might speed up the development of his offense.
So, given the configuration of talent in the organization, making Montero the regular first baseman for 2013 seems to be the obvious move. However, there’s a less obvious option that might actually be better for the organization – trade him.
No, this isn’t simply a reaction to Montero’s disappointing 2012 season. I’m not suggesting that any 22-year-old who doesn’t immediately come to the big leagues and tear the cover off the ball is a bust, or that we can definitively say that Montero isn’t going to become what the team envisioned when they acquired him last winter. I will suggest, however, that Montero isn’t as close to becoming that hitter as they had hoped, and now that it’s clear that he has no future as a catcher in Seattle, perhaps his particular skillset is a better fit for another organization.
Last January, I wrote a post over at FanGraphs about the career paths that similar hitting prospects over the last 20 years have taken. Using a few different variables, we came up with two dozen guys who had reached the Majors at an early age by bashing their way through the minor leagues, and the good news was that a good chunk of the had gone on to become really terrific Major League hitters. The bad news was that the majority of them just became above average hitters, though, and Montero’s minor league performances were closer to the guys at the lower end of the spectrum rather than the higher end.
Well, we now have an extra year of information, and we can reevaluate where Montero stands relative to those comparisons through his age-22 season. 22 of the 24 comparisons on the list had some MLB experience by age 22; just Chipper Jones (blew out his knee as a rookie) and Mike Piazza (didn’t reach the Majors until age 23) don’t really offer us any additional information to compare to Montero’s first full year (plus his brief debut last year) as a big leaguer. So, below is a table of where Montero fits in the list of those players, with their total Major League performance through their age-22 season.
The Alex Rodriguez/Miguel Cabrera comparisons were always a little ridiculous, but this illustrates just how far Montero is from those levels. Those guys were already elite sluggers at this point in their career, two of the best hitters in baseball with significant established track records. Of course, not being Rodriguez or Cabrera doesn’t mean there’s no hope, as there were plenty of other guys who weren’t yet what they would become at this same age.
However, note Montero’s placement on the list, especially in the three core skills categories – 17th in walk rate, 13th in strikeout rate, 18th in isolated slugging. While his overall performance relative to league average is basically a tie with Carlos Delgado, Delgado had already shown plate discipline and power, and simply needed to get his strikeouts under control and wait for his BABIP to normalize. Vladimir Guerrero wasn’t a great hitter at 22, but he had the best strikeout rate of anyone on the list and hit for decent power, which is of course the combination that made him so great once he took off. Jay Bruce was basically the same as Delgado, showing significant power but needing refinement in his approach.
Montero hasn’t really set himself apart in any of these areas, so in that way, he’s hanging out with guys like Adrian Beltre, Aramis Ramirez, Paul Konerko, Karim Garcia, and Delmon Young. And, if that’s the kind of career path Montero is on, the Mariners simply can’t count on him taking a huge step forward next year. Aramis Ramirez had a good year at 23, but then regressed back to average-ish the next few years and didn’t establish himself as a consistent offensive threat until age-26. Beltre muddled around until age-25, when he went nuts in his final year with the Dodgers, the kind of production he’s only gotten close to again in his 31-33 seasons. Konerko took a nice step forward at 23 and became a productive player, but didn’t post his first season over +2.5 WAR until age-29. And of course, Young has never turned into anything useful and Garcia was a total bust.
We can talk about the huge years that guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Prince Fielder, and Manny Ramirez had at 23 after being fairly pedestrian the year before, but we have to acknowledge that each of them had shown more offensive promise in the big leagues prior to their breakout season than Montero has to date. Right now, Montero looks a lot more like the guys who took their time developing, and eventually became good hitters in their mid-20s.
The Mariners don’t have several years to wait for Montero to turn into a good hitter, especially not as a first baseman. This is a team that needs production at first base sooner than later, and it’s not clear that Montero is going to hit well enough next year to be a real asset at first base. So, instead of going through another year of growing pains while he transitions to a new position and tries to figure out how to lay off the slider breaking off the outside of the plate, maybe the organization is better off trading him to a team that can afford to be a little more patient and might still see him as a catcher.
While he hasn’t been good behind the plate, he has caught 52 games in the Majors this year without the entire pitching staff falling apart, so it’s certainly possible that another team has upgraded their evaluation of him as a Mike Napoli/Carlos Santana type of catcher, and would be willing to continue to let him develop behind the plate in the hopes of getting a premium bat at a position where those aren’t very common. A team that might be willing to be a little more patient with Montero, accepting the fact that they might need to wait a couple more years for him to turn into the kind of player that he was hyped up to be while in the minors. A team that doesn’t already have an above average big league catcher and probably the best catching prospect in baseball knocking on the door, as the Mariners do.
Maybe a team like the Pirates, the Marlins, the Cubs, or the Mets would want to continue the Montero-as-catcher experiment, and pay for the right to be the one to try and reap the rewards if he sticks behind the plate. Maybe they wouldn’t — I’m totally speculating here — but it only takes one or two teams to think that catcher defense is overrated or that Montero was better than advertised to generate an interesting offer for Jack to consider.
If Montero could net you a package of players that included a young-ish first baseman like Logan Morrison or Ike Davis (and some other stuff, as he clearly has more trade value than either), perhaps the Mariners could use Montero to fill their biggest organizational need without actually using Montero though, and come out with some other useful piece as well. Or, maybe you use Montero to get a player from another team that the Diamondbacks covet and ship that guy to Arizona for Justin Upton. Obviously, without talking to other teams and figuring out if any of them would want to pay for Montero-as-a-catcher, this is all just wild speculation.
But it’s probably the worth making a few phone calls and gauging interest. They obviously don’t have to trade him, as he gives them a first base option for both next year and the future, but my long standing issue with Montero is that the bat doesn’t look special to me as a first baseman, and now the reality of the talent in Seattle is that he has no future as catcher here. But, maybe some other team thinks he still has a future as a catcher, and sees him as a premium young position player in a market where there aren’t very many of those available.
For the Mariners, he’s just a first baseman going forward, and it’s not obvious that the bat is going to make him a good first baseman any time soon. They shouldn’t be anywhere close to giving up on him, but exploring his trade value this winter to see if they can get a comparable young first baseman and some other stuff in return while he still might be viewed as a catcher seems like research worth doing. If everyone else just sees him as a first baseman too, then you just keep him and hope he has a big year in 2013. If someone sees him as a guy who is still worth keeping behind the plate for a while longer, though, then Montero may very well have more value to someone else than he does to the Mariners. And perhaps he’s the chip that gets them the good young hitter that they desperately need.