Commentary

Have Yanks lost faith in Jesus Montero?

Catcher was Jorge Posada's heir apparent -- until Russell Martin got promised the job

Updated: December 16, 2010, 6:25 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Let's recap the highlights of the Jesus Montero Era, shall we?

OK, now that that's over with ...

Only kidding, of course. As of Thursday, December 16, 2010, Jesus Montero is still a member of the New York Yankees organ-EYE-zation.

He is still, as far as we know, highly regarded as a hitter, if somewhat less so as a backstop. And the official word is his is a bright, bright future.

But where?

Montero, supposedly the prize of the Yankees farm system, had an outstanding season his first year in Triple A, hitting .289 with 21 home runs and 75 RBIs. He was called up to hang around the big-league club in September but never got into a game.

[+] EnlargeJesus Montero
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesIs Jesus Montero still the future of the Yankees behind the plate now that Russell Martin has been promised the starting-catcher job?

And as recently as a few days ago he was penciled in as the starting catcher for 2011 as Jorge Posada was to be shifted to DH. As recently as Tuesday, GM Brian Cashman maintained that was still the plan, unless something changed.

Well, something has.

If the Yankees' acquisition of Russell Martin, finally confirmed Thursday morning after a physical, wasn't enough to raise questions about Montero's future in the Bronx, then what does the revelation that the Yankees went ahead with the signing of Martin, at a reported $4 million, despite the fact he will need surgery to repair a torn meniscus before he ever squats behind a plate, say about their faith in Montero?

Well, probably one of two things.

The first is that, despite their public pronouncements to the contrary, the Yankees are not at all convinced the 21-year-old Montero is anywhere close to being ready to assume everyday catching duties for a major league team.

The second is that, despite their public pronouncements to the contrary, the Yankees are probably quite willing to include Montero in a trade package to acquire a starting pitcher now that Cliff Lee has remembered how much he loved Philadelphia.

And the third is that when Cashman issued his "Plan B is patience" proclamation on Tuesday, that patience may not have extended to waiting for Montero to be ready.

On that same day, Cashman had said, "I think it would be a rare situation for me to include Montero in a deal." Maybe he meant as rare as signing a catcher who needs knee surgery to a $4 million contract and designating him your starter before he has even gone under the knife.

The Yankees claim the surgery is "minor," but the only minor knee surgery for a catcher is knee surgery performed on some other team's catcher. Bad knees on a catcher is like bad knuckles on a fighter. Not good for business. Not conducive to a long and healthy career.

Russell Martin seems like a super guy, which most of the athletes from Canada that I have covered have been. On Thursday's conference call to introduce him to the New York media, his Canadian pronunciation of the word "organization" -- with the long "I" sound -- was nice to hear, because it usually means one more pleasant voice in the clubhouse, maybe even a suitable replacement for the reliably chatty Lance Berkman.

But the more you heard from, and about, Martin, the less you liked this deal, if only because it appears that although the new catcher may be damaged goods, the Yankees still felt it imperative to sign him, perhaps because they still thought he was better than their alternatives.

Surely, the catching position hurt the Yankees defensively in 2010. There were times it looked like neither Jorge Posada nor Francisco Cervelli could have thrown out CC Sabathia trying to steal with a piano on his back. There were too many passed balls, not enough pitches in the dirt prevented from getting to the backstop and at least two instances I can recall when Cervelli simply did not block the plate adequately on plays at home.

Posada's bat, of course, is never a problem and it will be back in the lineup in 2011 at the DH. As recently as last week, the Yankees were sending out every indication that his place behind the plate would be assumed by Montero, who would be given the opportunity in spring training to win the starting catching job.

But by signing Martin, especially a Martin coming off a devastating hip injury last August that cost him the last two months of the 2010 season and who now needs knee surgery, too, the Yankees are sending out a completely different message.

Thursday morning, after Martin passed his Yankees physical despite having a knee damaged enough to send him under the knife Monday, Cashman and Joe Girardi told him he would be the Yankees starting catcher in 2011.

It's impossible to fathom them bringing him here under any other circumstances, harder still to fathom why Martin would accept anything else when he had offers from at least two other teams, including the Red Sox, to choose from.

Who knows, maybe Montero will hit and catch enough in spring training to relegate Martin to backup catcher duty, a role he has never occupied in his five major-league seasons, in one of which (2007) he was the starting catcher in the All-Star game. He also won the NL Gold Glove that year, and hit .293 with 19 homers and 87 RBIs, all career highs.

But since then, his numbers have steadily regressed, all the way down to .250-7-53 in 2009, his last full season. Now, he is a player with perhaps even more to prove than Montero, having played in just 97 games before being injured last year, hitting .248 with five HRs and 26 RBIs, and will need to see a surgeon before he sees any action as a Yankee.

Still, in their first move of the post-Cliff Lee Era, the Yankees felt that adding Russell Martin was a move they couldn't afford to pass up.

It probably says less about Martin than it does about the man he is now likely to replace.

Is the Jesus Montero Era still before us? Or has it ended before it even had a chance to begin?

Jesus, we hardly knew ye!

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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