What’s next for Jesus Montero?

 When the Seattle Mariners sent Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees in a four-player deal that netted promising young slugger Jesus Montero it appeared to be a win-win trade based on each club’s respective needs. The Yankees were in dire need of some, preferably young, pitching depth, and the Mariners were struggling to acquire and develop hitters. Many people around baseball, executives and writers alike, lauded both clubs for the deal since players held superstar potential. Fast forward two-and-a-half years later and the M’s are stuck in a difficult position: what should they do with Montero?

The 24-year old has had two brief stints with the major league club so far in 2014 and in 17 plate appearances he’s managed four hits including one home run. Montero has actually put together a decent season during his time in Triple-A as he holds a .310/.374/.541 slash line with 15 home runs and a 133 wRC+ across 342 plate appearances. That stat package is a lot more indicative of what Seattle was hoping they were getting when they acquired the former catcher.

Back in 2012, Montero’s first full major league season, he actually didn’t fare too badly with a .685 OPS in 553 plate appearances. By contrast, Justin Smoak had a .654 OPS that year and so far in 2014 he has a .630 OPS in 262 plate appearances for the M’s. Obviously it wasn’t the breakout campaign the club was hoping for from Montero, but he did manage a 132 wRC+ against left-handed pitching and played in 56 games at catcher. One of the biggest concerns for the right-hander at the time of his acquisition was where he would play. His bat was never in question and he was described as a pure hitter by many, but there was plenty of doubt surrounding whether or not he would last at catcher and a move to first base seemed inevitable — if a permanent move to designated hitter wasn’t already in the works.

Montero’s 2013 was one to forget between the PED-suspension and suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee as there’s little doubt his development was significantly stalled. He then spent the offseason “eating”, in his own words, and left a poor taste in the mouth of many within the organization upon his arrival to Spring Training this year as his work ethic and desire to play the game were in serious question. Often times laziness and a bad attitude are a lethal combination for a player no matter the talent level. Whether he was over-frustrated with himself after the disaster that was 2013 or the steroids were a significant part of his success prior to that season remain to be seen. The same goes for his future in the Mariners organization.

[pullquote]Montero was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela by the New York Yankees on October 17, 2006.[/pullquote]

It’s no secret that Seattle is in dire need of some offensive help and after losing the first two games of a four-game set with the Baltimore Orioles with just a single run scored, that need was underlined again. The armchair general managers of the M’s have been calling for the club to designate Corey Hart for assignment, who has had his own share of struggles this year, and call up Montero to fill his spot for some time now. Of course it’s not quite that simple considering that Hart is still owed a couple million dollars on the year and it’s not clear that Montero would actually be an upgrade on the veteran. Though many are of the opinion that anything would be an upgrade at this point.

As currently constructed, there really isn’t a place on the big league roster for Montero even with Hart making consecutive starts at first base and right field. Logan Morrison is in the mix at first base and DH as well and Smoak is sitting at the top of the Triple-A depth chart. Even before the M’s reacquired Kendrys Morales from the Minnesota Twins this week there was hardly any room for Montero, now there is effectively zero. Of course Montero would be an option in the event of an injury, but he’d further limit an already fairly inflexible roster.

Montero sits just shy of 1400 plate appearances at the Triple-A level and has a .291/.354/.500 line in four seasons there so it’s not as though he has all that much to prove in the minors. However it may be best for the 24-year old to stay put for the remainder of the year, at least until the roster expansion in September, given the situation with the big club and his 2013 season.

Yes, Montero has been on a hot streak of late and has seven home runs in the past month, but consider that he’s benefitted from the very hitter-friendly confines of several Pacific Coast League cities such as Reno, Nevada during that stretch. He’s put up a .761 OPS at a much more pitcher-friendly Cheney Stadium in Tacoma so far this year compared to a 1.022 OPS on the road. Those numbers are also telling of his lack of success at Safeco compared to his slightly less lac of success on the road in the major leagues as well.

Those suggesting the former Yankee could be valuable in a potential trade shouldn’t be surprised to hear that that is not the case. Sure, there’s probably a couple teams that would be willing to take a flier on Montero, as there’s almost always a team willing to take a chance on a former top prospect, but it’s unlikely the M’s could get anything aside from some cash considerations in return. For what it’s worth, Seattle probably is best off simply hanging on to Montero for another year and seeing what happens.

It’s likely that one of Smoak and Morrison will no longer be with the organization after this season and both Morales and Hart will be free agents at season’s end as well, possibly leaving a spot open for Montero in 2015. There’s always the possibility that something clicks and he’s able to produce at the major league level, but that seems unlikely at this point.

The answer to the opening question is that there really isn’t an ideal solution. The best course of action could be leaving Montero at Triple-A for the remainder of the season or it could be shipping him to another club for some batting practice baseballs and seeing if a change of scenery helps. Although when there’s legitimate character concerns about a player on top of the concerns about his play, there’s very rarely a happy ending.

Sure, I’d love to see Montero come through and turn into an everyday slugger, but reality suggests that’s unlikely, and he also really isn’t any better than the options currently on the Mariners roster so until he puts up significant numbers at Cheney or Hart goes down again, don’t expect him back in Seattle any time soon.

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Tyler Carmont

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