After months of hype, discussion, and lobbying, Jesus Montero has finally joined the New York Yankees. With rosters expanding for September, the Yankees have called their top prospect up to join the big club, and the rumblings are that he’ll be in the line-up tonight, serving as the DH against Jon Lester in Boston. That might seem like quite a way to make a debut, but Montero is viewed as quite a talent – as one team official told Joel Sherman, “By the playoffs, he will be our best DH option.”
Certainly, Montero is a talented kid. He’s been ranked as one of the sport’s 50 best prospects by Baseball America for each of the last three years, rising from #38 in 2009 to #4 in 2010 to #3 before this season began. He’s climbed the minor league ladder quickly – he’s already accumulated almost 1,000 plate appearances in Triple-A – despite the fact that he won’t turn 22 until November, and his career minor league line of .301/.366/.501 shows a hitter with significant promise.
However, despite the hype and the hope for the future, I’d suggest that Yankees fans be realistic in their expectations of what Montero can bring to the team this year – he’s probably not going to be the savior they’ve been looking for.
Montero has been a highly rated prospect because he’s offered the potential for significant offense from the catching position, a spot where you just don’t have many kids who can actually swing the stick. However, for this year’s Yankees, he’s not a catcher. When asked about his role down the stretch, Joe Girardi said this:
“I could DH him, and I wouldn’t be afraid to put him behind the plate,” Girardi said. “I don’t know if I would start him in a game, just because the relationship between pitchers and catchers takes time to build. Our catchers are a lot more familiar with the pitchers than him, but it’s not a guy that I’d be afraid to put in.”
Despite the “not afraid to put him in” rhetoric, the key line is that Girardi essentially says outright that he won’t start a game with Montero as the catcher. That means his only chance to catch is if he’s a late-game replacement, and with two right-handed catchers on the roster, it’s unlikely that Girardi would send the also right-handed Montero up to pinch hit for either of them. He might be willing to use Montero behind the plate in a mop-up role or in case of an injury, but the plan seems clear – Montero will serve as a DH in September.
Being a DH rather than a catcher changes the offensive calculus to an extreme degree. Rather than just needing to be better than Francisco Cervelli, he now needs to outperform at least one member of the Jorge Posada/Andruw Jones platoon. Regardless of how high you are on Montero’s future, that’s a really tall order.
Against righties, Posada has actually performed pretty well, coming in at a .272/.348/.465 line that is good for a .354 wOBA. Montero, against Triple-A righties, has hit just .273/.330/.398 this year. It’s not bad luck, either – only 20 of his 83 hits against RHPs have gone for extra bases, and he’s racked up three strikeouts for every walk. Put simply, he hasn’t shown that he can hit quality right-handed pitching yet, and Posada is actually doing a pretty good job against RHPs this year.
Against lefties, Montero has performed significantly better. He’s crushed them this year, hitting .328/.392/.647 with 18 of his 38 hits going for extra bases. He’s even drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts against LHPs, as he’s shown that he can do a number on Triple-A southpaws. However, Andruw Jones is doing the same thing at the Major League level. Against LHPs, Jones is hitting .276/.377/.543, good for a .399 wOBA. Put simply, he doesn’t need to be replaced, and it’s unlikely that Montero could perform any better than Jones has in that role.
So, to get Montero’s bat in the line-up as a DH, the Yankees will likely either have to downgrade against righties or push Andruw Jones out to left field against southpaws. Andruw’s not a disaster out in left field or anything, but putting him out there means that you’re putting Brett Gardner on the bench, and while Gardner isn’t an offensive star against LHPs, he’s still one of the very best defensive outfielders in the sport, and putting Jones out there represents a very real downgrade defensively.
Can Montero provide more offense against LHPs than Gardner can? Yeah, probably. Can he provide enough to also make up for the lost defensive value by putting Gardner on the bench? Maybe, if he doesn’t take too long to adjust to Major League pitching and is a little more selective in what he swings at. Can he do all this while adjusting to life as a DH, when evidence shows that hitters underperform their true talent levels when being asked to not play the field? Again, maybe, but all of the sudden, this potential upgrade seems a lot less certain.
If Montero adjusts to the Majors, and if he adjusts to DH’ing, he might make the Yankees marginally better against left-handers. There’s little evidence that he’s ready to usurp Posada as the regular DH against right-handers, however, and given a limited role of the light half of a platoon DH, it’s hard to see Montero making a real significant impact on the Yankees down the stretch.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.