It was Friday the 13th every day for Jesus Montero in 2013:
Has an elite young player ever had a season as awful as Jesus Montero did in 2013? Is it even possible for it to be worse? He was terrible at the plate, he was terrible behind the plate, he got demoted to the minor leagues, the Mariners moved him from the top to the bottom of the defensive spectrum (catcher to 1st base), he then played poorly in the minors, he tore the meniscus in his knee, then he got suspended for performance-enhancing drug usage, then he suffered a hand injury while playing winter ball. Good grief! Montero’s season was an absolute soul-crushing nightmare of epic proportions.
Should we write him off as a total bust? Should we expect him to bounce back and become a useful fantasy baseball player again? Perhaps even a star?
Let’s take a look at his history. What made everyone believe he was a star in the making? Then we can discuss the reasons that he might never be good, then dig up some reasons that may lead us to believe that 2013 was merely a (major) bump on his road to future stardom.
Elite Prospect Pedigree:
Jesus Montero was the cream of the 2006 International Free Agent crop when he was signed by the Yankees at the age of 16. It didn’t take him long to vault to the top of the prospect charts. While he was still a teenager he cracked the top 10 of almost every top prospects list in 2010 and stayed there for 2011 and 2012. He achieved this high ranking even though everyone knew his days as a catcher were numbered. He was a very poor defensive catcher and his destiny was at DH or 1st Base.
Montero’s slash line during his minor league career was .312/.367/.505 for an .872 OPS, but the bulk of that damage was done at the lower levels. It was a bit of a warning sign that his AAA OPS in 2010-11 fell to .835. It was the first indication of troubles that have plagued him in the major leagues: experienced pitchers with good offspeed stuff have been able to get Montero to chase unhittable pitches all too frequently. Montero’s plate discipline and/or pitch recognition skills are subpar. He crushes fastballs in the strike zone, but is inept against offspeed pitches out of the zone. This is a problem that plagues many players from Latin America, and unless he fixes this shortcoming he will never be a star hitter.
The Yankees called Montero up to the majors in September of 2011 and he succeeded immediately, putting up an impressive .996 OPS in 18 games. But that winter he was traded to the Mariners, swapping hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium for pitcher-haven Safeco Field, where hitters go to die. In 2012 Montero got to play every day in the Mariners’ weak lineup but struggled to put up a wimpy .685 OPS in 515 ABs. In 2013 he got off to a terrible start (.590 OPS in 19 games) and was swiftly demoted back to AAA, and he didn’t play any better there before getting hurt and suspended.
50-Game BioGenesis Suspension:
How much does Montero’s PED usage harm his stock? Was his prior success a drug-induced mirage or is his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic a non-issue in terms of his performance expectations moving forward? In my opinion the PEDs are not a major strike against his future potential. The drugs were not the reason he put up such good numbers in the past, and the lack of the drugs was not the reason his 2013 season was awful. The specter of a suspension and the stress involved may have had some negative effect on his performance, but I don’t expect PEDs to have any positive or negative effect in 2014 and beyond.
Montero’s knee and hand injuries don’t seem to be of the sort that will hinder his long term development either. The fact that he was back playing winter ball so soon after his knee injury indicates that it was not a major injury. Given that Montero was never very nimble, fast or athletic in the first place the knee injury shouldn’t harm his potential.
Reasons for Optimism:
Rumor has it that the Mariners are shopping Montero. They don’t really have a place for him to play at the major league level. They have decided his days as a catcher are over, and his defensive skills are so poor that 1st base and designated hitter are his only options. The Mariners already have those positions filled with Justin Smoak, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. So even if Montero has a great Spring Training and gets off to a good start in the minor league season he is unlikely to get a chance at the major league level anytime soon. So a trade to another organization would be a very good thing for Montero and his fantasy owners. If he doesn’t get traded this winter his stock is not going to improve. Ideally he will escape Safeco Field and end up playing in a good hitters’ ballpark with a good lineup around him and an everyday starter’s role.
Now that Montero is no longer catching it may speed up his growth as a hitter. Catchers spend a large portion of their time learning how to handle pitching staffs, learning how to call a game and perfecting their techniques behind the plate. Now that he is free from those responsibilities he can concentrate on what he has always done best – hitting the baseball.
Even though Montero had a terrible season in 2013, a season where everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong, you still can’t ignore all the good things he has done in prior seasons. Once a player has repeatedly shown the talent and skill of crushing baseballs for an extended period of time over multiple seasons there is plenty of reason to think that ability will shine through even after an extended slump. His track record is simply excellent. It is so good that it doesn’t make sense to give up on him after one bad (really bad) season.
There are many other elite prospects who didn’t see immediate prolonged success in the major leagues. Players like Pedro Alvarez, Domonic Brown, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Chris Davis, Colby Rasmus, and Carlos Gonzalez are some guys from the last few seasons who were elite prospects who struggled for awhile before finally achieving success in the majors. Jesus Montero just turned 24 years old a couple weeks ago, so he still has plenty of time to mature into a quality fantasy baseball player and perhaps even a star player.
My personal opinion is Montero will eventually develop into an above average hitter, but not quite a star. His fantasy value will be somewhat limited because he will only be eligible to play 1st base and DH, which are positions where productive hitters are plentiful. But Montero does have superstar potential, that combined with his elite prospect pedigree and widespread name recognition means he does still have trade value in fantasy leagues. So if he gets off to a hot start in 2014 it might be a great time to cash out his value in a trade.