Commentary

Backstop to the future? Not so fast

Yankee Stadium out of reach until Jesus Montero learns to focus on the here and now

Updated: June 23, 2011, 5:41 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

MOOSIC, Pa. -- The future of the New York Yankees received a two-game timeout earlier this month because the organization felt his play lacked "energy," according to one club official.

The future of the Yankees has hit just five home runs all season, which is miniscule when compared to the output of Triple-A Scranton teammates -- and borderline prospects -- Jorge Vazquez (20) and Justin Maxwell (16).

The future of the Yankees has thrown out eight of 45 base stealers (.178), which is ninth best in the 14-team International League.

And there are some days and nights in which Jesus Montero's head seems to be a lot of places, but not fully in the minor league ballpark he is playing in.

Montero, 21, is still a lot of great things. He is still one of the best prospects in baseball. ESPN.com's Keith Law had him at No. 4 in the entire minor leagues. Montero's bat has life, while defense has improved some.

So Montero is still potentially an All-Star major league catcher.

[+] EnlargeJesus Montero
AP Photo/Kathy WillensOne school of thought: Jesus Montero is in a New York state of mind while his body is in Scranton.

But right now, there is one thing Montero is certainly not: He is not ready to start, let alone star, in the big leagues.

"It is all in becoming a first-rate professional and he is still in the middle of that process," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations, who heads up the team's minor leagues.

• • •

Derek Jeter once hit .202 in the minors. Another year, he made 56 errors. At either of those points, if a reporter wrote about the No. 6 pick in the 1992 draft, the article would not have predicted 3,000 hits, five Gold Gloves and a speech in Cooperstown.

Montero could be on the same path as Jeter, but a year that started for him with what appeared to be a big break -- the bone in Francisco Cervelli's left foot during spring training -- has resulted in an average minor league season with a little dim coming off his star.

Montero's season is not at the level of Jeter's early-'90s minor league horrors, but .291 with five homers, 26 RBIs and an OPS of .711 is not out-of-this-world stuff. Not even close.

Monte -- as everyone in Scranton calls him -- is developing at beautiful, tree-lined PNC Field in front of crowds that average around 4,000 fans per game. When you walk into the stadium a sign greets you, saying the Bronx is 128 miles away. Sometimes, it seems, that is where Montero's head is located, too.

"I just get the feeling that Monte is so blessed physically -- and I hate to say it -- he is almost bored here in Triple-A," said Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar, a former Yankees catcher. "Maybe if he went to the big leagues tomorrow, this kid might just go off and he just might lock in."

• • •

Montero's inability to "lock in" could be a function of just being 21. The belief among Yankees personnel is that Montero is a good kid. It seems accurate when you talk to him. He is polite and accommodating even as he pelts a reporter with big league-ready trite responses.

Despite the Yankees' willingness to trade him twice before as the headliner in failed bids for Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, they are intrigued about what he could be one day.

The potential to have a plus offensive player at the catching position -- such as Jorge Posada in his heyday -- is a tantalizing strategic advantage that the Yankees could foresee. Of course, they could just as easily deal him for real, maybe even by the end of next month.

[+] EnlargeJesus Montero
AP Photo/Kathy WillensAs Jesus Montero will one day learn, playing catcher for Joe Girardi requires commitment to the craft.

The expectations and nearly making the big club this spring have almost made it feel as if Montero has fallen off the fast track, which is ridiculous given that his birth certificate reads 1989. However, fans aren't the only ones who feel the effects of the brakes being slightly tapped.

"I think he expected to be in the big leagues by now," Newman said. "And that is OK, too. Part of the development process is to learn how to deal with frustration, learn how to deal with things when they don't go exactly your way."

The Yankees handed Montero a learning experience June 11-12. Unsatisfied with the way Montero was going about his business, the Yankees sent him a message by not starting him for two straight games in Syracuse. (He ended up pinch-hitting when the second game went into the 12th.)

The Yankees don't feel the need to rush Montero. Depending on the situation, if Russell Martin or Cervelli were to get hurt, it wouldn't be outlandish for the Yankees to bypass Montero and reach down to Double-A for the superior-catching, lighter-hitting Austin Romine.

• • •

When Cervelli broke his foot in the spring, it appeared Montero could be the backup catcher to start the season. He could have learned behind Martin with the possibility that by next season, maybe earlier, Montero could be in front of him.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman liked the idea of a future leading man learning the Bronx as an understudy.

Instead, with the knowledge that the backup job could be his with Cervelli hurt, Montero pressed, looking to pull everything, trying to wow decision-makers with his power instead of letting the opportunity come to him.

"Maybe that happened," the Venezuelan Montero said in crisp English. "I tried too hard."

• • •

Now, the problem is consistently staying focused, which could be a function of youth, but it is untenable if you are going to receive 150 pitches per game and be responsible for 12 pitchers in the AL East.

Wynegar can tell when Montero's demeanor is right or not. If Montero is laughing too much, he is off his game.

At those times, he is just being a 21-year-old kid. When he is serious, he is being a 21-year-old man who understands his business.

[+] EnlargeJesus Montero
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJesus Montero is hitting .289 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs in 350 at-bats.

Wynegar showed up in the big leagues at 20 with the Twins and stayed for 13 seasons, including five with the Yankees, and acknowledges Montero's age.

"I think sometimes we forget he is 21," Wynegar said. "He is still a kid at heart. He is a fun-loving kid. He hasn't understood quite yet when the fun stops and the business part kicks in."

Wynegar talks up Montero's defensive game, which has been the knock on the youngster.

Wynegar said Montero's throwing motion is shorter than last year, though that hasn't led to great success punching out base stealers.

Montero is framing pitches better, while his drop rate has decreased dramatically, according to Wynegar.

Montero still can be lax on his heels in his crouch and opponents can take advantage of him. His size -- 6-foot-4, which is tall for a catcher -- is not a concern.

"For a big boy, he is quick," said Wynegar, who is 6-foot-1.

• • •

The catching position probably is the most complicated one on the field, so Yankees decision-makers want to make sure Montero is full ready for an opportunity.

To play catcher for Joe Girardi in the Bronx, Montero must master the mental side. Between the on-field and video scouting that is paired with data analysis, Yankees coaches assimilate vast intelligence reports. If used properly, it can be a distinct advantage.

Montero still needs to learn how to consistently study so he can recall that the No. 6 hitter in the lineup loves off-speed stuff, and not to throw a fastball to the No. 3 batter. When his concentration level is high, Wynegar sees a major league defensive catcher.

[+] EnlargeJesus Montero
Kim Klement/US PresswireJesus Montero's Triple-A hitting coach, a former catcher, sees improvement on defense.

"When he is locked in, he is very solid," Wynegar said.

• • •

Scouts who watched Montero earlier in the season say he again tried to pull the ball too much. Wynegar mentioned Montero -- cognizant of his low home run total at Scranton -- has overcompensated, trying go deep more, which is unneeded with his pure, powerful swing.

On Monday, the Yankees brought in their roving hitting instructor, James Rowson, to look at video in Scranton, wanting Montero to stay more balanced in his base and consistent with his hands. When Montero is right at the plate he has been compared to an in-his-prime Manny Ramirez because he can go the other way with power.

Last August, Montero tore the ball up all over Triple-A, hitting at a more than .1000 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). This year, the power has not been there.

"This is Triple-A. It is not easy," Montero said. "I know the big leagues are not easy, too."

• • •

On Monday night, there were just 2,612 in the seats at PNC Field. One of them was Newman. Another was Yankees super scout Gene Michael.

In the second inning, Montero worked a 3-2 count and ripped a double into the left field corner. It was the swing of a future All-Star.

"If he stays persistent, he'll be fine," Newman said. "He can be a great hitter. He can be a legitimate major league catcher, who can really, really hit. It is up to him."

One day, the future of the Yankees might have a grand career, like Jeter.

Today, he is just 21.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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