Rush to judgment: Jesus Montero

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians
The Montero critics like to remember. Fat Jesus, run over at the plate in Cleveland. May 19, 2013;   Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

This story from December 21st at Fox Sports raised a firestorm of discussion at the Seattle Mariners FaceBook page.  I would guess two thirds of posters had a negative reaction to Jesus Montero having a role on the 2016 25-man roster. Some questioned whether he was a big league hitter.  Others claimed he was terrible in the field.  Still others were clear that he had his chances and simply was never going to be good enough.

I recently wrote a post about the history of Mariners catching futility over the past decade. The decision to trade for Jesus Montero is deeply rooted in the vacuum of Mariner catching talent.   The M’s sent highly regarded right-hander Michael Pineda to New York for Montero.  Pineda had a solid rookie season and finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. Montero was widely considered the best right handed hitting prospect in the minors. In acquiring Montero, the Mariners thought they were, once again, getting their catcher-of-the-future as well as a potent bat.

Jack Zdurencik penciled him in at catcher, though even at the time of the trade the view was that Montero would not end up a catcher. But the real story was that Montero spent the 2012 season with the big club slashing an acceptable .260/.293/.386 while Pineda began two seasons of arm miseries.

We know the rest of Montero’s story. Injuries and terrible judgment that kept him from playing regularly in 2013-14. Car accident, meniscus tear, weight gain, a 50 game suspension due to PED use in the Biogenesis scandal, chucking an ice cream sandwich at a Mariners scout.  This is all off-the-field-not-prettiness.  By February of 2014, Zdurencik lost faith in Montero, stating, “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero.  Any expectations I had are gone.” That was before his suspension, before the embarrassment with the scout.

Since 2012, Montero has spent precious little time in the majors.  Banished to the minors to learn first base at the same time as Z’s lack of confidence statement, Montero has had only 313 major league at bats 2013-15. And honestly he hasn’t earned many more.

Montero 2
The other Jesus, who reported to Spring Training in 2015 in the best shape of his life.  The same Jesus who set the Tacoma record for highest batting average in its 55-year history.

But 2015 was different.  He reported to spring training in the best shape of his life. He played in 98 Pacific Coast League games including 82 games at first base. Montero’s .355 batting average was the highest in Tacoma team history, going back to 1960. But his inability to take a walk is also reflected in his .398 OBP. Montero was unable to translate his minor league success into similar achievement at the major league level. He slashed a paltry .223/.250/.411 at the major league level in 116 plate appearances spread over July, August and September.  He drew only four walks.

Today Montero is vying to be the right handed platoon-mate with lefty first baseman Adam Lind. Fans are screaming that Montero should go.  And who’s to blame them?  Montero has not produced at the major league level.  He seems like a Zdurencik-era guy–with power potential but poor on-base skills, unclear exactly what his defense is like.  He was evaluated poorly in his 26 games at first base for the Mariners, but using advanced metrics to evaluate his potential at first base in such a small sample size is a little like using a flashlight to discover the origins of the Milky Way.  Let’s just say he’s not as good as Keith Hernandez, but probably not as bad as Dick Stuart “Dr. Strangeglove.” Well, probably closer to Stuart.

I confess to being a homer, and I love stories of redemption.  So when Franklin Gutierrez had a season to remember from the ashes of a baseball career, I was all over it. The same when Tom Wilhelmsen resurrected what had been an awful year to finish strong as the team’s closer; I was thrilled. I would love it if Montero could show the skills needed to fill this spot.

Critics say we know who Montero is and if another affordable player becomes available who has on-base skills, mashes lefties and can play first base and maybe another position offering some roster flexibility, we should get him.  And I think I agree with them.

But others who are on the “Dump Montero now!!” train, I can’t join you. I would argue that while we should all be frustrated with the choices he made during the 2013-14 seasons, that he is clearly limited positionally, but as a hitter we know very little about him at the major league level. Here are some things we do know

  • Jesus Montero is 26 years old–certainly getting along in his career but younger than Edgar Martinez when he made his first major league start.
  • Like Edgar, he’s torn up minor league pitching, hitting .328 with Columbus in 2011 and .355 in Tacoma last year.
  • Since 2012, he’s played in the majors only sporadically and without a defined role.
  • Montero has a career .292 average against left handed pitching
  • But, all in all, Montero has 865 career major league plate appearances and of those, 553 came in his 2012 rookie season.
  • By contrast, when Dustin Ackley was shipped off to the Yankees for two players no longer in the Mariners organization he had 2,220 at bats with the Mariners. When the M’s washed their hands of Justin Smoak he had 2,218 major league plate appearances.
  • Montero has a career K rate of 19.9% and a career walk rate of 5.6%.
  • Montero currently holds a protected spot on the 40-man roster
  • Jesus Montero is out of minor league options. If the Mariners don’t put him on their 25-man roster, Montero is out of minor league options and will become a free agent.

My contention is we really don’t know Montero on the field very well. There is little question he has performed poorly off the field, and for the last few years he hasn’t taken the opportunities to impress us with the little time he’s had between the lines. But let’s be clear, that’s 312 plate appearances, or about half a year’s at bats spread over three seasons.  Montero should have the opportunity to show his stuff in spring training.

If something better comes along at a reasonable cost sign him, but let’s not dump an asset we don’t know very well in a fit of pique over past foolishness when today the man is giving it his best shot. But I suspect a certain amount of the bile directed at Montero has to do with with these same personal choices he made. We are all often unable to forgive those with talent we wish we had, when they seem to be pissing theirs away.  Unfortunately the game is replete with imperfect people with imperfect judgment from the crazy violence of Milton Bradley to Curt Schilling’s lack of discretion. When I see my own life at age 23 and 24, there are a thousand things I would do over-I just didn’t have quite so much at stake. For another smart (and sympathetic) view of Montero, take a look at Kate Preusser‘s story at Lookout Landing.

But it shouldn’t cloud our judgment when trying to put together a team on the field. If he can’t make the grade in practice games Montero should be gone and a better player inserted in the right-handed first base platoon/lefty masher role. But we would be foolish not see where he is in his development at age 26, especially if he can help this team.



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