Mariners' fans all know what the club gave up in their trade with the Yankees on Friday afternoon. Big Michael Pineda followed up an impressive 2010 minor league season in which he skyrocketed up prospect rankings lists with an overpowering 2011 Spring Training and an even more impressive rookie season in the big leagues, earning an All-Star selection and winning over many Seattle fans with his big fastball and great control. He ended the season with more strikeouts (173) than innings pitched, the 7th highest SO/9 rate in the majors (among starters, at 9.11) and the fourth lowest opponents' batting average allowed (.209) in all of baseball.
What everyone wants to know is just what the club is getting back from New York in Jesus Montero?
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus and ESPN said on SiriusXM sports that, "the Mariners are getting a guy who can really, really hit. A guy that could be a .300-plus hitter with 30-plus home runs, on any team."
To expand on that, Montero frequently gets 70 ratings in both hitting ability and power from scouts. He also gets some very nice names thrown around as potential MLB-comps. Names like Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza and Miguel Cabrera. Of course, those are all "best case scenario" type comps, but they aren't without merit. All the praise thrown upon him tells you that Montero is almost unanimously considered to be on his way to becoming an elite hitter and a big-time slugger at the major league level. The surety in those claims comes because of huge raw strength, very quick wrists (which deliver excellent bat speed) and a swing that is clearly controlled by his great hands. Although his plate discipline seemed to decrease overall in 2011 when he repeated Triple-A as a 21-year-old, he usually stays back well and lets the ball travel deep. He is very patient with excellent strike zone judgment, but is very aggressive in the strike zone when attacking his pitch -- an approach that the Mariners love. He still succeeds as a power hitter with this approach because of his awesome bat speed and plus-plus power to every part of any ballpark.
Where will he play defensively? I'm not completely sure what the Mariners plan to do with him, but it has been rumored that the Mariners are confident that Montero will be able to stick at catcher, at least in the short term. I've talked to a couple of scouts over the past few days that agree that he should be given the opportunity to catch, perhaps in some sort of rotation that isn't too dissimilar from what the Indians did with Carlos Santana last season. One of those scouts opined that Montero was, "already better now than Piazza ever was defensively", but I didn't find anyone willing to corroborate that.
It should be noted that Montero will be the fifth catcher on the 40-man roster once the trade is finalized if the Mariners do choose to continue catching him.
Putting all of that aside for a moment though, the Mariners are getting their value here in Montero's bat. And his bat is good enough that his defensive position is of distant secondary concern. From the day he joins Seattle, Jesus Montero will immediately become the team's biggest power threat, best right-handed hitter and most likely cleanup bat. Scout.com's Frankie Piliere said of Montero, "Jesus Montero will hit in the big leagues. He's made that pretty clear already. Seattle desperately needs an offensive boost and he'll give that to them immediately in 2012. His position is still a question mark, but his offensive numbers will be gaudy regardless of his position."
As the 2011 season wore into the second half, it was clear that the Mariners lineup was becoming very left-hand-heavy, so I think that Montero's handedness -- together with a hitting profile that leads me to believe that he won't be too limited by Safeco Field's dimensions -- actually helps balance out Seattle's lineup. Being able to break up lefties Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp and switch-hitter Justin Smoak with the right-handed Montero should help the Mariners from becoming susceptible to opposing managers relying relief specialists for extended stints.
This move -- even more than signing Felix Hernandez to his extension in January of 2010 -- now will become the move that more than any other will define Jack Zduriencik's tenure as General Manager in Seattle. If Montero ends up failing and Pineda continues to mature into a top pitcher, when GMZ ultimately loses his job this move will be something that fans will point to forever as the primary reason.
Getting back to Montero and just what he gives the Mariners, no prospect is a sure thing. No prospect is immune to potential failure. But if you ask around, you will be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn't believe in Jesus Montero as a hitter. The Mariners gave up a huge talent in Michael Pineda, but Montero could turn out to be exactly what the Mariners need to jump-start their club into serious contender status in the American League West in relatively short time. He very well could turn out to be the single biggest thing that the club lacked in house: a legit middle of the order hitter.