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Montero's ETA

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The major league offense is struggling and Jesus Montero is back to his super-slugger ways, so the question that was bandied about while fans warmed their backs by the Hot Stove awaiting the 2010 season is once again current: When will he being taking his act to The Show? As I wrote in passing last week, I don’t see Montero getting the call this season. Reader "thenamestsam" wanted greater specificity:

Wanted to ask what your opinion is on Montero’s ETA at this point. While it’s generally good to avoid drawing inferences off small sample sizes it seems the progression of this season paints a pretty typical picture of someone very young for their level who initially struggled to adjust, and has now solved AAA pitching. Do you think the Yankees are still planning to wait for the glove to be ready and risk wasting some good offensive years? Any chance of a September call-up (I know he’s not on the 40 man now), should we be thinking opening day next year or midway through?

As thenamestsam points out, the Yankees could be wasting prime offense if they keep Montero in the stocks to work on his fielding. So when will we see the top offense-oriented Yankee prospect in years on the highest stage? Soon.

First, let’s examine what could have contributed to Montero’s slow start to the season and why he has not been called up yet. Montero’s 2009 season was ended prematurely by a broken middle finger on his left hand (after he had thoroughly abused Florida State League pitching and earned himself a promotion to Double-A, where he continued to bash), and he only saw action in nine winter-ball games in his native Venezuela. When spring training arrived with Montero topping prospect charts everywhere (warning: subscription-based websites—Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and ESPN Insider, respectively—in the first three links) for both the Yankees and in baseball as a whole (the lowest he was ranked was 19th overall), he checked into camp a wee bit plumper than desired, not the best way to make an impression. However, he whipped himself into better playing condition and went 3-for-8 in Grapefruit League play before getting ticketed to minor-league camp.

This is the first season that Montero has been a full-time catcher, as he had been playing in tandem with fellow catching prospect Austin Romine for the previous two years. If there is a flaw in his game, the most egregiously obvious is his glove work. Jorge Posada is known for being no great shakes at defense, but as my Baseball Prospectus colleague Kevin Goldstein says, Montero could be much worse than the Yanks’ 39-year-old receiver. In fact, one pitcher told the Trentonian’s Josh Norris that Montero was “the worst defensive catcher he’s ever seen.”

As Jay Jaffe noted earlier, Montero is already a hulk of a guy at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and that’s not a typical catcher’s build. As he ages, he is likely to get bigger, so staying behind the dish may become a moot point in the near future. However, I do think the Yankees should allow him to continue to don the tools of ignorance until he proves he cannot catch anymore—which he is on his way to doing, despite reported improvements in his skills last season. My reason for this is that his value is greatest when he is penciled in as a catcher given the scarcity of top hitters at the position. One could argue that it would be better to move him to a different position now, especially since catching is a position wrought with injury risk, but given the current Yankees’ roster, there is almost no chance he will see much action in the field if he’s not a catcher; there are no immediate holes in right field or first. First base is slightly tied up with a guy named Mark Teixeira, so that’s not an option except on the rare days Tex gets a day off, making his most likely destination DH and some “break glass in case of emergency” catching with Francisco Cervelli and Posada.

That said, keeping him in the minors to try to make improvements to his catching game is pointless if he’s unlikely to make great strides. So do the Yankees call him up when rosters expand, designating someone for assignment in the process? Nah. Why not? Same reason: roster space.

I’m going to be delving into this topic as the date draws nearer, but the Rule 5 draft and the lack of immediate need to add Montero to the roster could be a factor in the Yankees keeping him on the farm. If an international free agent signs a contract prior to turning 19, the team that signs him has five years to evaluate his performance and decide if he merits a spot on the 40-man roster. If the prospect signs at 19 years or older, the team has four years to come to a decision. Montero signed his name on the dotted line in July 2006 when he was 16 years old, meaning that the Yankees have until 2011 to add him to the roster.

As it stands, there are plenty of players from the epic ’06 haul and ’07 drafts who warrant protection, or at least consideration for protection, this coming winter. The Yanks only have to protect college players who were drafted in 2007 due to the four-year evaluation period for college students, but everyone who was drafted in the ’06 draft or earlier will now be up for the Rule 5. What are some names that could be tossed around? Dellin Betances (’06), George Kontos (’06), Brandon Laird (’07), Zach McAllister (’06), Lance Pendleton (’05), and Ryan Pope (’07) are all in the discussion. Roster spots are at a premium, and there is not much to be earned by putting Montero on the roster on September 1. He wouldn’t be eligible for the postseason, and though fans may want to hear their first snatches of John Sterling triumphantly hollering, “Sweet Jesus! He hit a moonshot!” to puncture the crisp night air, that doesn’t justify putting him on the roster. According to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, the Yankees have an 87.3 percent chance at earning an October berth, so it’s not as though adding Montero to the roster is going to increase those odds exponentially.

And yet, I believe Montero will make an appearance in the Bronx in September. Hold up—didn’t I just say he wasn’t going to be put on the roster? Indeed I did, and I stand by that. Instead, I think the Yankees will do as they have done with prospects like Austin Jackson: bring him up in September to hang out with the team and get a taste of the “Yankee way.” Every year, the Bombers bring up prospects with promising futures and on the cusp of the big leagues for this treat. The player does not have to be on the roster, and it is a nice way to whet a prospect’s appetite and acquaint him with the place he hopes to call home in the coming seasons.

That brings us to 2011. The best chance for Montero to break in with the big boys is going to come in spring training. Who are the main competitors for his roster spot? It depends who the Yankees sign, of course; they could block the designated hitter spot by signing a free agent like Adam Dunn (it is nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which Nick Johnson’s option is picked up). Assuming that they do not pursue this course, to make the team Montero will have to convince the Yankees that he is ready to exceed the aggregate production of the players they would otherwise rotate through at DH.

If Montero continues to exhibit Ruthian feats of power (he has a .657 slugging percentage since July 1), the Yankees will have their choice made up for them. Regardless of defensive deficiencies, if a player is swinging a stick as well as Montero has been, it would be impossible to justify keeping it down on the farm to start the season. (OK, I lied. Maybe if you happen to be named Dayton Moore can you try to rationalize this choice.) One thing fans do not have to worry about is the service-time clock. The team is brimming with cash and plays to win every season, a World Series championship or bust, so delaying Montero’s arbitration clock might be preferable, but is not an urgent issue. If there is any player that could give them an edge, help them win immediately and carry some of the load through the season, the Yankees will seize the opportunity.

As the rosters shake out at the end of spring training, Joe Girardi and Co. will have to decide what they value and who will provide the most value to the team. A kid with mammoth mashability who can also get on base at a regular clip can be a key contributor to a team that likes to have runners on base, bop the ball over the wall, and may have some major questions about its starting rotation. Even better, when that contributor will be under team control for six years at below-market prices and has nothing left to prove while he annihilates minor-league pitching, a call to the majors should be in order. Jesus Montero probably won;t enter spring training with a spot on the 40-man roster locked up, but I'd bet that the Yankees will find room for him when camp breaks next March.

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As the minor-league seasons are drawing fast to a close and the playoffs are approaching, before I plunge into topics like the Rule 5 draft, fall and winter ball, and maybe some player capsules, are there any topics or questions or prospects that you, faithful reader, would like me to explicate? If so, feel free to throw your ideas down in the comments or at my Twitter account.