Struggling since spring training ended and real baseball began, Jesus Montero was finally optioned to Triple-A Tacoma earlier this week. Never projected to be much of a defender behind the plate, Montero's offense was supposed to carry him and make his catching palatable. That didn't happen, and Montero was sent down specifically to work on his hitting while General Manager Jack Zduriencik basically acknowledged that the catching experience for Jesus is over. Having lost his starting job just a few weeks into the season and sporting woeful offensive numbers -- among the worst in the league -- the question being asked the loudest about Montero's demotion is, "why did it take so long?"
While it is true that Montero struggled right out of the gate with the bat (albeit after hitting .400/.438/.711 with six doubles, a triple, 2 home runs and 11 RBI in 45 spring at bats, perhaps giving the staff false hope that he was on the brink of bouncing back), there are several reasons why a demotion of a young player of his stature doesn't happen right away. Eric Wedge and Zduriencik have talked about a few of those reasons recently on record with quotes like, “we would rather be a day late than a day early,” and, "we like to have a pretty good idea that these prospects are going to stay here when we do bring them up," in regards to young players' timetables.
Furthering this point with the Montero move as the subject, the Mariners needed to make sure that Triple-A was the answer -- and that catching wasn't going to be in Jesus’s future -- before the move to demote him was made. The reasons being that top hitting prospect Mike Zunino is, of course, already the primary catcher in Tacoma, for one. You can’t send Montero down and continue to hope for him to become a catcher if he is only going to catch at most two days per week. That would not only do Montero no good, but it could also hinder the development of Zunino. So they waited to be sure that catching was no longer an option. And as for why it wasn't Zunino who came up to replace Montero, the Mariners want him to show that he is beyond his struggles and has the ability to bounce back from adversity. If Zunino had been promoted in the first few weeks of the season, as many fans were calling for, he would have reached the game's highest level without ever facing any struggles. And then if the struggles had come, it would have been natural for Zunino to question whether or not he was cut out for the big leagues. Allowing that last step in prospect development -- the ability to rebound from a slump mentally and physically -- to take place in the minor leagues is something that this front office believes is vital to the future development of the player.
Nick Franklin fought through some early Triple-A struggles last year and has been one of the PCL’s best hitters this season but he hasn't been called up yet. Why Not? Super Two Status -- allowing for a fourth season of arbitration, with the "extra" year coming early -- is one consideration that clubs must look at for prospects like Franklin, but the other consideration has to do with roster construction. If Franklin comes up, who does he replace? Would it be Brendan Ryan at shortstop? Franklin has played fewer than 40% of his games in 2013 in Tacoma at shortstop, and he is widely considered to be average at best at the position defensively. You prefer Dustin Ackley at second base? That would mean essentially punting on Ackley as a legitimate big league prospect as a middle infielder, much as they now have with Montero as a catcher. Again, the Mariners had better be absolutely positive that Ackley isn't going to work out before they move on to Franklin.
Clubs never want to call up true prospects if they aren't going to serve as the regular starter. Franklin can play second base and shortstop, but is there enough playing time as a starter for him to be up now? Tough call. Add in the Super Two and other factors discussed above and it makes it more understandable why the Mariners aren't moving on Franklin right now. And looking ahead, the M's 40-man and 25-man rosters are already set to get more crowded and complex shortly.
Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen are both already 40-man members who are recovering from injuries. They'll surely both be added to the big league roster at some point this season. And right-handed relievers Stephen Pryor and Josh Kinney are the 41st and 42nd members of Seattle's 40-man roster right now. Franklin Gutierrez is going to be back early next month as well. Each of those players need a spot on the 25-man roster and Pryor and Kinney need spots on the 40. Franklin and Zunino would need 40-man spots, too.
So while it would be great to just add in these young players while they are hot, regardless of when that is, clubs have a myriad of reasons not to jump at the first signs of life from the farm. The Mariners are in the same boat as many clubs in trying to wait for that perfect time to promote their top young players when they have the best chance to succeed long term as well as when the roster makeup is in need of a fit.
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