And so the great experiment comes to a close, at least for the foreseeable future.
The Seattle Mariners have demoted Jesus Montero to Triple-A Tacoma and in his stead, Jesus Sucre — an actual catcher — has been promoted to the major league team to back up Kelly Shoppach, who has the starting job for the time being after the 23-year-old Montero played his way out of it. So that leaves him with a fairly ghastly season line of .208/.264/.327 in 110 plate appearances this year in the majors, and a career line of .258/.303/.396 in 732 PA, and at this point in time it’s very possible that Thursday’s roster move is the last we’ll see of Jesus Montero, Everyday Player.
Montero’s only value, of course, is his bat. It’s not that he’s a bad catcher, or that he’s a bad first baseman, or that he’s slow — he has negative value in all these things. Behind the plate he was a plague upon the Mariners’ already-thin and top-heavy pitching staff; out at first base he’s got slow feet, terrible instincts, and, well, if you’ve watched him “catch,” you’ve seen how well he handles balls thrown in the dirt.* As a baserunner he’s practically useless, the very definition of station-to-station. So if the bat isn’t there, and right now it’s not, there’s absolutely no reason to keep putting him in your starting lineup — in fact, there’s every reason in the world to sit him on the bench or on a bus out of town.
What happened to the bat? That’s simple enough: Though he was hailed very loudly as one of the best hitting prospects in baseball when his rights were held by the New York Yankees, no one — the Mariners included when they traded Michael Pineda and Jorge Campos to New York, in what would have been an amazing fleecing if both those pitchers hadn’t immediately suffered injury-related implosions — anticipated that Montero would be unable to hit right-handed pitching at the major league level.
Montero is right-handed, but optimists and believers in his bat thought that given time and maturity that platoon split would come around with his pitch recognition (or that he’d be so good in general that it wouldn’t matter), especially since Montero hit righties fine in the minors. That hasn’t been the case so far. And hitters simply cannot get away with being bad against right-handed pitching in the majors the way they can against lefties, if their bat is going to have high value.
Three years into Montero’s career, he’s a .226/.267/.365 hitter against righties (480 PA); he strikes out more against righties, walks less, and makes atrocious contact when he puts the ball in play. If Andre Ethier, for example, had his platoon splits flip-flopped and was an MVP against lefties and a sub-replacement level scrub against righties, at best he’d be signing one-year deals for $2-4 million a season until his bat started to slow down. Something around 70% of the pitchers in the majors throw right-handed — there’s too many of them around for a player (especially one whose only redeeming feature is his bat) to be unable to hit them and expect to play every day…or in the majors at all.
I doubt we’ve seen the last of Jesus Montero even if he never does figure out righties — he’ll get hot one of these days in Tacoma, aided by the launching pads of the PCL, and we’ll have articles proclaiming he’s made good on his promise and is the next Jose Bautista and #FreeJesus and all the rest, and then he’ll come up and he’ll still be a guy who can’t run, field, or hit 70% of the pitchers in the league.
There’s always an outside chance he develops into Edgar Martinez, like people have been dreaming. He’s still only 23. But there’s a better chance he develops into a useful but flawed player, sort of like Jack Cust, and spends about as much time in the league in his late twenties as Cust did. Or maybe he’ll kick around the league for a while as a reclamation project, then perhaps as a bench player on an American League team, then a Triple-A journeyman. Jesus Montero is probably a bust, and that happens. It’s time for Seattle to move on, and let him play his way back onto the team if he can. The only real question I have left about the whole affair is: When does Dustin Ackley join him?
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*A clarification about Jesus Montero and first base: No, he has not played there in a game. The Mariners have worked Montero out at first base during spring training and other camp-setting exercises, and never put him in a game based on what they saw from him there. That’s important: They never put him in a game, despite not having any real option at first due to Justin Smoak being in free fall, and even though if Montero’s bat does work out they’d want him to play there anyway, to keep his bat in the lineup on his rest days. The fact that Jesus Montero has never been asked to play first base before is less a symptom of how “easy” the position is to play, and more of how little Montero has progressed as a defensive player in general. It’s also recognition that he has so much to learn there that they don’t want it to be a distraction to him while trying to get his catching somewhere near passable. Jeff Sullivan voices similar concerns about Montero trying to learn first base at U.S.S. Mariner.
First base is “easier” than other positions, but it is not easy. It requires fewer physical tools than a middle infield position, but it does require them, and they’re not always the same tools. As I mentioned, there’s one crucial skill that a first baseman needs that we’ve already seen Jesus Montero display — the ability to catch the ball when thrown to him, whether in the dirt or on a bounce or while extending. Montero’s receiving skills have, to date, been a nightmare. He won’t have to catch breaking balls anymore, this is true, but the ball’s going to be coming to him from weird angles at varying times and speeds, and to be good at his job he’s going to have to go get those throws just as often as he’s going to be able to stand there and catch them. Nothing about the Jesus Montero that we or the Mariners have seen so far has indicated that this transition to first base will be an easy one, or will result in even an average defender. If that was the case, he would’ve played there already.