Similar to an Anthony McCarron article in the Daily News that prompted a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago about Yankees catching prospect Jesus Montero, Ben Shpigel of The New York Times wrote his own good profile of the young catching phenom yesterday that is worth a look. In it, Yankees GM Brian Cashman both raved about Montero’s bat, and expressed a determination that outside speculation about switching Montero to another position would not dissuade the organization from honing his catching skills:
“Every year you hear: ‘When are the Yankees going to move him off catcher? He’s not this, he’s not this,’ ” General Manager Brian Cashman said. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks. We’re going to do what we think. All the tools are there, all the ability is there. With that bat, if he can stay behind home plate? Wow.”
It would be tremendous indeed should Montero develop into a good enough major-league catcher to be the Yankees’ regular backstop, with his Grade-A bat in the lineup every day. Shpigel pinpointed a couple items on which the Yankees have focused to improve Montero’s catching. One is making his body major-league ready. Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long did not divulge details, but spoke in somewhat pointed terms about this and especially the expectations he and the organization have about matching Montero’s physical maturity with his bat, which Cashman and Long acknowledge is mature beyond his 20 years.
Cashman recalled an instance from last Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, when Montero, after falling behind to Jesse Crain, 0-2, sensed that an outside breaking ball was coming. It did, and Montero poked it down the right-field line for a double.
“It’s amazing that at 20 years old he’s a .320 lifetime hitter,” Long said. (Montero’s career average is actually .325.) “But he’s got to get his body in shape and turn from being a soft kid to a hard-nosed man. He’s got to do it in a hurry because he owes it to the organization. He owes it to everybody around him.” [Shpigel’s parenthetical insertion]
It’s important to pause for a moment on this. The reminder of Montero’s hitting prowess is worthwhile in its own right. But the savvy and wisdom to sense the next pitch, especially by a budding catcher who appears attuned to pitch selection as part of his job, is what impressed me most. Crain is not a bad reliever, a guy going on his seventh season in the majors, sporting a 32-20 career record with a 3.50 ERA. A hard throwing with good breaking pitches, Crain is no slouch, yet Montero, just 20, bested him not just in a good at-bat, but by thinking like a mature professional hitter. That’s impressive, as Cashman and Long rightly acknowledge.
On Montero’s physicality, I would have liked to see a few more details here. For one, was Long implying that Montero has not labored or focused hard enough on weight and cardio training to be an everyday catcher in the pros? Long’s phrase that Montero must change “from…a soft kid to a hard-nosed man…in a hurry because he owes it to the organization” almost implies an impatience with, or perhaps a program of rapid acceleration for, Montero. With the absence of details, I certainly hope it’s the latter. Plus, having seen just a little of Montero, he certainly doesn’t appear to wear much baby fat. The kid already appears to be in pretty good shape.
I think another possible explanation for Long’s disquisition on Montero’s development, which also underscores Cashman’s plan to develop Montero as a catcher, is the catching situation overall. Jorge Posada will turn 39 in August, and while his productivity has remained excellent–against the grain of history for players, much less catchers, his age–he can’t catch forever. Joe Girardi has already said that he expects Posada to catch no more than 120 games this year, steering at least 25% of the catching workload to the young and emerging backstop Francisco Cervelli. However, what the Yankees can expect out of the athletic and hard-working Cervelli remains a mystery. A converted middle infielder, Cervelli impressed the Yanks last season when he was called up in May to replace the injured Posada and, despite hitting an anemic .190 in Trenton to that point, proceeded to hit .298 with 1 homer and 11 RBI in 42 games in The Bronx. Perhaps more importantly, Cervelli nailed an impressive 43% of the base runners trying to steal and, combined with his nice hitting last year, eventually displaced the strong defensive but weak-hitting Jose Molina as the Yankees’ backup. Yet Cervelli might not possess the type of bat that the Yankees need to succeed Posada.
Montero, on the other hand, has more than enough offense to replace Posada. What the Yankees are pushing Montero to improve upon is his quickness, particularly in reducing his catch-and-throw times to second base. Shpigel has a good segment in which he says that, according to the Yankees, Montero requires “1.9 to 2.0 seconds to catch and throw the ball to second base, whereas an elite catcher, like Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals, can do it in about 1.7.” While Montero has what Tony Pena characterizes as “a very strong arm,” he is still developing his throwing mechanics. Right now, it would be a stretch to imagine Montero pegging out 43% of base stealers, and the task of continuing Montero’s defensive improvement will fall to Butch Wynegar in SWB.
Implicit in the quote from Long above, I believe, is a desire for Montero to develop as a person, too. The “hard-nosed man” might allude not just to preparing Montero physically but psychologically, especially given the role that Posada has had for years as team leader and emotional barometer for the team–as I’ve characterized him, the guts of the team. The ’08 Yankees appeared to lack a certain urgency after Posada went down, and while the Yankees did a great job by adding mature veteran leadership in C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher last off-season, Posada’s crucial role on the Yankees is similar to that of Tino Martinez on the great late 1990s teams, providing vocal leadership, accountability, and a serious demeanor. Termed by minor-league catching coordinator Julio Mosquera as “an outgoing guy” and [n]ot timid,” Montero will have big shoes to fill indeed should he eventually develop into the Yankees’ everyday catcher. Posada as a player and leader has become ensconced, with Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Thurman Munson, as part of the greatest lineage of catchers that any team in the history of the game has ever had. They had different personalities and styles as players, but none were wallflowers.
I for one like that the Yankees are pushing Montero while at the same time not presuming that he will immediately succeed Posada and/or make it to The Bronx. Cashman illustrates this balance the Yankees are negotiating between high expectations for Montero and the remaining development necessary for the majors by saying, “My job is to put the best team on the field that will help us win games,” Cashman said. “If a guy turns out to show us that he’s better than what we have, then we have to make it work. If that guy is Montero, then that’s what we’re hoping for.” They want Montero to be that guy, but are not automatically granting it to him. It’s a similar approach to how the Yankees have handled Joba Chamberlain, whom the Yankees have protected with innings limits while also expecting him to handle those rules and his altered pitching schedule last year with maturity. The Yankees in the process appear to be grooming their young players, particularly Montero, both physically and emotionally for the high expectations inherently connected with playing in The Bronx.
Time will tell how Montero handles all this but, should his defensive development parallel his offensive prowess, he will get the chance to show us sooner rather than later.