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Jesús Montero for Michael Pineda: A look back, 10 years later

Ten years ago, the Yankees dealt a stud prospect for one of baseball’s best young arms.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

I remember where I was roughly ten years ago. I had just arrived home from work on the afternoon of January 13th. I don’t remember much else about that day, except it was Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, so I am confident that it was bloody cold. Anyway, my phone buzzed right as I arrived home and I saw a message from a since-departed Yankees Friend (RIP, Kev) that started with the words “the Yankees just traded Montero to Seattle…”

I admit that I simultaneously blacked out a little bit and entertained wild dreams of King Felix donning the pinstripes. Surely that was the only way Brian Cashman would part with Jesús Montero, prospect wunderkind and the Next Great Yankees Catcher.

Then I read the rest of the message: “... for Michael Pineda.” While my initial reaction was disappointment that Félix Hernández was not actually headed to the Bronx, I remember still being impressed. Pineda had just wrapped an excellent rookie season, pitching to a 3.74 ERA and 3.5 fWAR in 171 innings. Although plenty of fans were furious that the Yankees dealt Montero, I was ultimately OK with it. Considering the fact that the Yankees still had Austin Romine and Gary Sánchez kicking around in the minor leagues, it seemed like Cashman had dealt from a position of strength to bring in a future ace.

The final terms of the deal included a couple other players, with Vicente Campos (who then went by José) headed to New York alongside Pineda. Meanwhile, Héctor Noesi completed the deal on the Yankees’ end.

It did not take long for the short-term takes of “who won” the trade to pour in as injuries rapidly derailed Pineda’s Yankee tenure. A shoulder injury in spring training in 2012 was only the beginning, and injuries ultimately delayed his pinstriped debut until 2014. Pineda’s absence prompted at least one pundit to speculate that Seattle was “winning” the deal — not even a full month into the first season afterward, mind you.

Ultimately, no one “won” the trade if we measure the swap on whether either cornerstone met the lofty expectations of their respective fanbases. Pineda’s 9.9 fWAR in pinstripes wasn’t as much as fans had hoped, but the figure dwarfs the -2.9 fWAR Montero… accrued… during his Mariners tenure. He immediately proved that he couldn’t catch in the majors, and his once-potent bat fizzled after a modest rookie season at the plate in 2012.

By the fWAR metric, considering neither Campos nor Noesi provided any real value to either club, the Yankees indisputably came out the victors in the deal. Plus, the deal gave us this:

A decade later, the extent to which Montero fizzled out still stuns me. Entering the 2011 season, he was Baseball America’s No. 1 Yankees prospect, ahead of The Kraken and Dellin Betances, just to name a couple. BA also listed him as the Best Hitter for Average and Best Power Hitter in the Yankees minor league system. It wasn’t just organizational acclaim either — he ranked behind only future superstars Bryce Harper and Mike Trout in Baseball America’s Top 100.

That season, his age-21 campaign, Montero clubbed 18 dingers in 420 at-bats at Triple-A and put together an .814 OPS. Then he came to the Bronx for a fall cameo… it took all of four games for Montero to show his prodigious power and potential. Oppo taco. Twice. And neither were wall scrapers. The sky seemed the limit.

I won’t delve further into Montero’s decline after he left New York. Suffice to say that he has not played in a Major League Baseball game since 2015. Montero’s time on the big stage was over before he ever reached his age-26 season. A “can’t-miss prospect” definitely missed on this occasion.

Where are the rest of the players who were involved in the deal? Pineda is the only one involved who is still playing in the bigs. Currently a free agent, Pineda finished 2021 with the Minnesota Twins where he started 21 games and pitched to 3.62 ERA. Once the lockout-imposed transaction stagnation ends, it is hard to imagine Pineda won’t be picking up innings for an MLB club in 2022.

Héctor Noesi, the other player that Cashman sent to Seattle, managed to stick around the majors longer than Montero. He pitched for the Mariners, Rangers, and White Sox from 2012 through 2015. He then took his talents across the Pacific and performed admirably for the Kia Tigers in the KBO, highlighted by a 2017 campaign wherein he went 20-5 in 201.1 innings. He returned stateside for the 2019 season and threw 27.2 innings for the Miami Marlins to an unsightly 8.46 ERA. Noesi has not set foot on a big league mound since.

Campos’ tenure in the majors was the shortest of all the players involved in the deal. A couple years after Tommy John surgery interrupted his development, the Yankese flipped him to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Tyler Clippard at the 2016 trade deadline. Campos did make it to the bigs in Phoenix ... for a grand total of 5.2 innings. That was it, however. Campos continued to toil in the minor leagues through the 2019 season, but never again reached The Show.

A decade after the M’s and the Yankees swapped what seemed like franchise cornerstones, I think it is safe to say that the trade disappointed. The Yankees undoubtedly got more from Pineda than Seattle did Montero. But Pineda never achieved his tantalizing potential except in brief spurts, and after he had Tommy John surgery of his own in 2017, few were disappointed to see him walk away as a free agent. Still, his performance in pinstripes far outstripped the return-on-investment Montero provided Seattle.

There is perhaps no instructive lesson for the Yankees to take from the Montero-for-Pineda trade a decade later. An isolated incident should not influence the club either way on whether to hold its elite prospects for established talent. Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering, as we wait on Anthony Volpe, Jasson Dominguez, and Oswald Peraza (among others), that “can’t-miss” prospects do in fact miss. But the players the club could acquire in return may also underperform. Maybe the lesson is that it is easier to armchair GM than to do it in real-life.