At the start of spring training, Seattle first baseman Jesus Montero could not have looked like a less attractive ballplayer. His major league season from the year before had ended with 110 at bats, a .590 OPS, and a demotion to Triple-A, his minor league season was halted in disgrace as he was implicated in the Biogenesis scandal and slammed with a 50-game suspension. In between, he missed 6 weeks with a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Worse, the player who once ranked as the game’s third best prospect, showed up to camp a reported 40 pounds overweight, telling reporters that “After winter ball, all I did was eat.”
In turn, GM Jack Zduriencick told reporters that he had “zero expectations” regarding Montero – an almost unconscionable statement for a general manager to make publicly . Two years prior, Zduriencick had traded Michael Pineda, then a rookie who averaged 95 on the gun and served as the youngest member of the 2011 American League All Star team, for him.
That was in February. Then the games rolled around.
And Montero actually hit. Despite the suspension, and despite the injury, and despite the weight, Montero hit. The 24 year old slugged .624 with a .355 OBP and two home run in 29 spring training at-bats.
Those of course, are just spring training numbers, generally regarded by baseball people as next to meaningless. Montero had posted similar numbers each of the past two years, only to see his success halt when the games started to matter.
Seattle optioned him to Triple-A Tacoma: out of sight, and for the most part, out of mind. This was a team with playoff aspirations, and with former 30 home run hitter in Corey Hart, a potentially 13 million dollar free agent addition, to take up at bats at DH. They already had a pair of busted prospects in Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison to vie for at bats at first base and no time for a player who didn’t even bother to show up to camp in shape.
But in the four and a half months since, Corey Hart has struggled to find his power stroke in spacious Safeco Field as he’s hit .203 with just 5 home runs in 207 at bats, while dealing with knee and hamstring injuries. Meanwhile, Smoak and Morrison have both struggled to remember the swings that once made them such promising young hitters, with each currently boasting a .630 OPS.
And in Triple-A Tacoma, Jesus Montero, fully out of the spotlight for the first time since before 2008, when the Yankees started crowning him as the second coming of Mike Piazza, has done nothing but hit. He knocked out seven home runs and slugged .613 in the month of April. In May, he drew 18 walks – more than Hart and Morrison have all season – and posted a .358 on base Percentage. And yesterday it was announced that he had been named Pacific Coast Player of the Month for July, thanks to eight home runs, a .364 average, and a league leading 72 total bases.
Overall, he owns a .290/.355/.500 line with 16 home runs and 74 RBIs in 397 plate appearances for Tacoma.
Strong offensive displays in the PCL are often attributed to the general hitting-friendly atmosphere of the league, but Cheney Stadium, where the Tacoma Rainiers call home, is actually the league’s second best pitcher’s park.
Montero’s success has garnered him just 17 major league at bats this year, over which he has collected four hits and one home run.
This is not to say, though, that the ex-prospect will be the answer to the Mariners’ offensive woes, as some columnists have argued. In fact, there are many reasons to doubt the transferability of his performance, and even its authenticity.
Montero may be playing in one of the PCL’s worst hitter’s park, but he’s not hitting in it. He has posted just .227/.316/.416 slash line at home, while taking full advantage of other parks’ offensive effects, hitting .338 and 27 of his 41 extra base hits on the road.
Moreover, his minor league stats this year aren’t a marked improvement over what they’ve been it past seasons. Montero struggled to a .723 OPS last year, but that was across only 27 games. In last full Triple-A season, 2010 with the Yankees’ affiliate, the then elite prospect had an .814 OPS, and the year before he posted an .870 mark. Minor leaguers are often judged by their peripheral stats, and Montero’s walk rate has remained an almost constant 9% since 2010, his strikeout rate an intransigent 18%.
More to the point when discussing a call-up at the moment, Montero’s success has faded of late. The young slugger is currently mired in a major rut, hitting .130 with no extra base hits in the month of August. And that’s not including his 0-4, three strikeout performance last night against New Orleans.
But at the same time, what exactly are Seattles’ alternatives? They acquired veteran DH Kendrys Morales from the Twins prior to the trade deadline, hoping he would provide some support of offensive boost. But he had an .541 OPS with Minnesota, and in 16 games with the Mariners, he has hit .185 with just four extra base hits (one home run).
Collectively Seattle first baseman have amassed the fourth lowest Wins Above Replacements (-0.5) in the major leagues, according to Fangraphs.com, and the second worst OPS (.637) and slugging percentage (.355). Their designated hitters have combined for the third worst WAR (-1.7), and hold the second lowest marks in average (.201), on base percentage (.216), and slugging percentage (.316).
Montero may struggle and strikeout and fail in the majors, but right now, the players Seattle is running out at first and DH are actually costing them wins; this 24 year old ex-prospect would be hard pressed to do worse and at the very least he offers potential.
GM Jack Zduriencik doesn’t seem to have the qualms I’ve expressed about his performance. He told Joel Sherman in July that ““[Montero] has gone down and worked hard. He has swung the bat well and we think he is legitimate.”
When Sherman pressed on why they acquired Morales instead of promoting Montero, Zduriencik pointed to the other side of the ball.
““Jesus [originally a catcher] is still learning to play first base, he is rather young (24) and so you ask, ‘Jesus Montero or Kendrys Morales?’” He told Sherman, “And we felt that Kendrys was the best option. We needed a major league bat, not someone still trying to figure things out.”
Except in the three weeks since Seattle acquired him, Morales has played all of three games at first for Seattle, as opposed to 15 at DH, and is a subpar defender besides.