Chris Taylor, Jesus Montero to the M’s
Bob Dutton of the News Tribune reported this afternoon that the roster spot the M’s had opened up by optioning Taijuan Walker back to Tacoma will be filled by SS Chris Taylor. There’d been plenty of speculation about the job, especially after the M’s hinted that they’d go with a bat, that Jesus Montero’s hot streak might have won him another job, or that Justin Smoak’s stint in purgatory was over. They skipped over Nick Franklin as well, apparently deciding to look for flaws in a player who hasn’t seen the majors before as opposed to the known issues Smoak/Franklin present. As it turned out, the M’s didn’t have one spot, they had two. With Willie Bloomquist heading to the DL, the M’s added Montero as well.
If you need a refresher on Taylor, he was the M’s fifth-round pick in 2012 out of (where else) UVA, where he played with Danny Hultzen, John Hicks and something like 10% of the M’s minor league system. He hit .284/.383/.445 in his junior year, which is the statistical line of a 10th-round senior-sign, but Taylor’s reputation with the glove was sterling. As a glove-first college SS, I guessed the M’s were trying to save some bonus pool money – 2012 was the first year with pools, remember – but instead, the M’s signed him to an OVERslot bonus of $500,000. That seemed odd, but the M’s saw an offensive threat lurking under some bad habits and mechanics. He was assigned to Everett, and promptly put up a .900 OPS in 150-odd plate appearances. Better than the college numbers, but it was a short-season league.
The M’s pushed him to High Desert the next year, then Jackson towards the end of 2013. He began 2014 in Tacoma, despite the presence of Nick Franklin, who’d ostensibly been in contention for the starting SS gig in Seattle. With Brad Miller, their original pop-up SS prospect, Franklin and now Taylor, the M’s were suddenly rife with middle infield prospects. Let’s hear it for the M’s player development team who got far more out of Taylor (glove-only guy), Miller (messed-up swing, can’t hit advanced pitching) and Franklin (gym-rat but lacks tools; no pop) than any neutral observer thought was possible. And yet, the reason the M’s are turning to Taylor now is that Miller and Franklin have, to varying degrees, been exposed a bit in the majors. Add Dustin Ackley to the list, and it gets scarier still. The M’s are apparently incredible at developing AAA middle infielders. How can that have so little bearing on big league success?
Obviously, the fact that two or three other successful prospects at AAA have struggled in the bigs doesn’t mean Taylor’s doomed. He’s unique, and in some ways, well-suited for the M’s right now. Unlike Jesus Montero, he’s done most of his damage against righties. While we can’t project him to run reverse-splits, he’s not going to be lost against righties. But he *is* right-handed, and if they wanted to platoon him a bit or pinch hit for Miller, that would actually make some sense. The fact that they now have a back-up (or a starter, frankly) for Miller means Willie Bloomquist can move back to filling in for everyone else, and it gives the M’s bench a bit of depth. Montero makes sense too, albeit in a limited role, but his speed and lack of a position limit his usefulness to this team. Until they’re ready to pull the plug on Corey Hart, Montero can’t add much unless he’s suddenly figured something out *this* trip to Tacoma.
Defensively, Taylor’s range looks to me about equivalent, maybe a tad better, to Miller’s (and superior to Franklin’s). Taylor’s hands and accurate arm have helped him make far fewer errors in the minors, though Miller’s arm strength on plays in the SS/3B hole may have the edge on Taylor’s. Offensively, Taylor lacks Miller/Franklin’s raw power. His batspeed’s a step behind Miller’s, and his swing’s more level than Miller’s, but that doesn’t mean he’s a contact hitter. Through the system, Miller struck out less. Taylor makes up for that in two ways. First, he’s got a good eye, and his walk rate’s been steady – and good. Second, Taylor’s speed is a legitimate plus tool. It’s why his range plays up a bit, and his baserunning has been best-in-the-system good. He’s stolen 69 bases in his 2+ years in the system, and he’s stolen them at an 86% success rate. That’s propped up by his incredible 2013, when he stole 38 bases and was caught only five times, but this is a weapon Taylor has that none of his predecessors have had.
Of course, they were all (even Franklin) seen as better bats. Taylor’s lack of HR-power will limit how effective he can be, but a SS who can run and take a walk could be pretty good. He’s struggled at times this year, and his numbers are held aloft by an incredible hot streak from mid-April to mid-May. But he’s not useless at the plate. Of interest to me, he’s shown the ability to battle against top-shelf velocity, putting up some good at-bats against Noah Syndergaard, probably the PCL’s top power arm this season. He recognizes breaking balls fairly well, but the thing I’ve been most impressed with is his ability to pull his hands in and catch up to inside fastballs. This isn’t to say he’s a 60-grade bat or anything. The M’s are just trying things out, and may ultimately be showcasing him for other teams. But the whole package is a bit better than the sum of its parts, which is something that stood out about Kyle Seager when he was coming up too.
Since his demotion, Montero’s been on fire in the PCL, and he’s put up a 1.271 OPS for the month of July. As Dave mentioned the other day in that debate with Rob Neyer, there are caveats. In addition to his large platoon splits (he’s annihilating PCL lefties, while he’s just been OK-to-pretty-good against righties), he’s posting very large home/road splits. If you know anything about the PCL, you know why that’s a red flag. Outside of Tacoma, which, for the PCL, plays as a pitcher’s park, the other teams in the Pacific Division are generally all extreme hitters’ parks. Colorado Springs is Coors field, if Coors was 1,000 feet *higher* in elevation. Albuquerque may be an even better place to hit, especially after Colorado Springs humidor’d up. Reno and Las Vegas too. So to see Montero’s home OPS at just .767 is a bit concerning. The other issue that hasn’t been mentioned as much concerns Montero’s batspeed. After Syndergaard threw six consecutive fastballs down the middle and got two strikeouts on Montero in May, I started looking at the pitchers Montero’s homered off of. It’s a diverse group, and, thanks to a desert windstorm, Syndergaard’s one of them, but lefty command/control guys are over-represented. Looking back at his MLB stats, Montero’s performance on velocity better than 93 or so looked to taper off after 2012, though of course the n is so small, it’s impossible to make any definitive statements. Thankfully, if you’re still the sort who’s hopeful about Montero, he’s made a mechanical change of his own.
As Ryan Divish reported the other night, Montero’s stance is quite different – it’s more open and much more upright. This tweak – something he worked on with Tacoma hitting coach Cory Snyder – may mean nothing. It may hamper his ability to reach outside pitches, or it may make it harder to react to breaking balls. On the other hand, Montero would probably trade some contact for power. As it’s now clear that he’s not fated to add defensive value at the big league level, his hitting needs to take several steps forward. The power he was rumored to have never really made it to the majors, and even his minor league slugging percentages are more great-for-a-catcher than great. If the new swing allows him to do more damage on the pitches he catches up to, that’s probably a trade he needs to make.