Why Jesus Montero Catching Isn’t Helpful
With the Mariners declining Miguel Olivo‘s option, there’s been some conversation over the last few days about whether the M’s need to go get another Olivo type of catcher — meaning a right-handed backup, not a horrible player who the manager overvalues — or whether they can just go with John Jaso and Jesus Montero splitting the duties until Mike Zunino eventually shows up. I know a decent amount of you just want to go with Jaso and Montero so that Eric Wedge is forced to use them both, rather than playing some stop-gap veteran who tickles his fancy. However, I just don’t think it’s a particularly practical solution, and the explanation also points towards why I don’t think Montero serving as a part-time catcher is even helpful to the organization.
Let’s just start with the obvious – Jesus Montero is going to spend a decent amount of time at DH next year. Jack has already stated that they’re not really looking at him as a first baseman, and they see him as strictly a catcher/DH option for 2013. So, on days when Montero starts at DH, the Mariners have to have another catcher on the roster. It’s not just in case of injury — though that is part of it, as no manager wants to lose the DH for an entire game if Jaso ends up getting hit by a pitch in the first inning or something — but also just for basic strategy. Both Jaso and Montero are slow runners who should be pinch-run for late in games, and Jaso should probably be pinch-hit for against tough left-handers in high leverage situations, assuming the team has a decent right-handed bat on the bench anyway. On days when Jaso is catching and Montero is DHing, you can’t do either of those things for either one. Even pinch-running for Montero is too big of a risk, because no manager wants to get put in a position where something happens and the team has a utility infielder wearing the gear at the end of the game if it could have been avoided.
Having Montero DH means that the team does not have a choice but to carry another catcher. And if you’re already going to carry two catchers in addition to Montero, then there’s really not much value in having Montero catch at all.
The entire point of keeping a bad defensive player at an up-the-middle position is to try and squeeze extra offense into the line-up by freeing up a line-up spot that can be given to another hitter. When Montero catches, the DH spot is open for another bat, so the guy playing DH essentially hits instead of whoever that backup catcher would have been. The DH is almost certainly going to be a better hitter than a generic backup catcher, so that’s where the value in having Montero catch is supposed to come from.
But here’s the problem – a team carrying 12 pitchers doesn’t really have a spot on the bench for three catchers and a platoon DH, so that guy is not going to end up being the bat you think you’re getting in the first place.
Let’s just walk through it. Here’s how the 25 man roster is going to break down:
Starting Pitchers: 5
Relief Pitchers: 7
Starting Infielders: 4
Starting Outfielders: 3
That’s 19 of your 25 roster spots accounted for without counting catcher or DH. Jaso and Montero push us up to 21 players, and then the required third catcher puts us at 22. So, you have three spots left on the bench, and right now, you don’t have a single backup for any of the position players. Obviously, you need a reserve outfielder, so that’s 23. And then you need a backup infielder who can play shortstop, so even if you get a super utility guy to cover all three non-1B infield spots, you’re at 24 and are in a situation where your backup shortstop is also the guy who has to give Kyle Seager or Dustin Ackley a day off if need be.
That’s less than ideal, since most guys who can play shortstop can’t hit, which is why teams generally split that role in two, having a backup middle infielder and then a backup corner infielder. But if the Mariners did that, they’d be at 25, and their roster would be full. So, to fit this right-handed DH type on the roster, all of the sudden he’s also required to play first and third base, so that he can serve as the backup corner guy on days he’s not DHing against lefties.
But, now, you’ve just added a level of defensive requirement that drastically cuts down on the pool of candidates. While the hope is that having Montero catch lets you stick someone like Jonny Gomes in the line-up, he doesn’t qualify anymore, because now you’re looking for a right-handed stick who can play third if need be. You know how many players in the Majors last year played at least 10 games at both 3B and DH in 2012?
10. Three of them are regular third baseman who just battled injuries (Beltre, Longoria, A-Rod) and one is left-handed (Eric Chavez), so they’re obviously not options for this kind of role. The other six — Mark Reynolds (too expensive), Michael Young (WAY too expensive), Jeff Keppinger (free agent coming off good year, won’t have to settle for part-time gig), Pedro Ciriaco (can’t hit), Jose Lopez (dear God no), and Lonnie Chisenhall (prospect, not available). The reality is that there just anyone who can both play an adequate Major League third base and hit well enough to be a real option at DH is good enough to be a starting third baseman, so he’s already got a job and probably makes a lot of money. There just isn’t some warehouse of useful right-handed 3B/DH types who are looking for 250 plate appearances per year. Those guys basically don’t exist.
Because of the potential role being offered, you’re just going to be left fishing at the bottom of the free agent market or trading for some AAAA kid who you think deserves a shot in the big leagues. Sometimes, this works – the Rays got a steal with Keppinger, and Josh Donaldson turned into a pretty nice player for the A’s after originally being cast in something like this role. But, really, this is the kind of player you’re talking about opening up a roster spot for. Not Jonny Gomes; Josh Donaldson, with some chance of ending up with Jose Lopez instead.
Even if you think Jesus Montero is simply a bad defensive catcher instead of a disaster catcher, the reality is that an alignment with Montero behind the plate and a Donaldson type at DH isn’t anything special, and could be pretty easily matched by pairing a generic right-handed catcher with decent defense with Montero at DH. The gap in offense between what you can actually fit in as your right-handed DH and what you could get from a right-handed platoon catcher — those do exist, by the way — isn’t all that large.
With a four man bench, giving two of those spots to a third catcher and a platoon DH really hampers your roster construction options. And, if the team is serious about having Montero as a C/DH next year, then the third catcher isn’t optional. So, rather than force Montero behind the plate and create an inflexible bench that leaves the team short-handed whenever anyone (read: Brendan Ryan or Franklin Gutierrez) are dinged up and need a day off, the Mariners can just solve this whole mess by telling Montero his days as a catcher are over.
This makes it easy. Montero just turns himself into Billy Butler, focusing on just hitting and turning all those hours he would have spent on catching into time working on his swing or improving his hitting. The other catcher on the roster becomes Jaso’s platoon guy, and the two of them share catching duties. And then your backup corner guy doesn’t have to hit well enough to also serve as a DH against righties, so you have a little more flexibility in the type of player you can choose to fill that role.
The idea of Jesus Montero as a catcher is far more valuable than the reality of Jesus Montero as a catcher. When you look at the practical applications of having him do both, it should be pretty clear that the organization isn’t really gaining anything by having him stay behind the plate. And, if you just take Montero’s catcher’s glove away from him now, then you’re not converting him into a full-time DH mid-season if Zunino forces his way onto the roster.
I get that the team has invested a lot in Montero as a player, and that in a vacuum, a guy who can catch is more valuable than a guy who is strictly a DH. But, for this organization, where John Jaso is already here and Mike Zunino is coming, there’s just not really any real value to be had from Montero catching. Not if they also want him to DH, anyway.