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ESPN experts offer mixed reviews of Jesus Montero

By Brady Henderson

A return from the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday gave a few baseball experts a chance to join 710 ESPN Seattle on Tuesday and weigh in on the trade between the Mariners and Yankees, which was first reported Friday and is pending physicals before it becomes official.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark, Buster Olney and Keith Law all shared similar optimism and concern over catcher Jesus Montero, the 22-year-old prospect who’s coming to Seattle along with Hector Noesi in exchange for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.

Here are a few of their thoughts:

A position switch may be in order

Stark, Olney and Law all shared the widespread belief that Montero’s defensive shortcomings could preclude him from catching. Olney, a guest on “Bob and Groz,” took it a step further by saying that what he has heard from scouts is that Montero is ill-suited to even play first base. Designated hitter is where Montero figures to land, in Olney’s view.

Analysts rave about Jesus Montero as a hitter, but some think he won’t last long behind the plate. (AP)

Montero’s primary issue, according to Olney, is that he doesn’t have enough athletic ability to overcome the limitations that are caused by his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame. That becomes an issue when he attempts to throw runners out.

“Catchers, when they go to throw the ball they’ll bounce up off the ground, come to two feet, reset their feet to throw to second base,” Olney explained. “What the Yankees actually put in place for Montero was to anchor his right foot in one place, and basically he didn’t reset his feet when he threw to second base. Now, the good thing is he’s got a really strong arm. The bad thing is — and the reason why they did that, of course — is because he doesn’t have very quick feet. He had 14 passed balls in 2010.

“And again, I defer to people who have seen him play a lot more than I have and they just don’t think he’s going to be workable long-term as a catcher.”

Law told “The Kevin Calabro Show” that while having to move Montero from catcher isn’t ideal, it would save him from the physical toll and standard off-days that come with the position, thus increasing his potential as a hitter. Law suggested that moving Montero to first base isn’t out of the question.

“Better to avoid the injury risk, avoid the defensive problems and get him on the field 155-160 games a year — or at least get his bat in the lineup that many games — rather than mess around with him as a catcher,” Law said.

High expectations for Montero’s bat

If there are any doubts as to how Montero projects as a hitter, you weren’t going to hear them from any of the aforementioned analysts.

Law estimated that Montero has the potential to eventually hit 25-30 home runs a year, a number Law thinks would be even higher if Montero were to play in a park that isn’t as hard on right-handed hitters.

“If this guy can’t hit for power in Safeco, then I don’t know if there is a right-handed-hitting prospect who is going to hit for power in Safeco,” Law said.

While Law thinks Montero may not reach his full power potential right away, he said Montero’s “advanced approach at the plate” should translate into a high on-base percentage right away.

As a late-season call-up in 2011, Montero hit .328 with a .408 on-base percentage, four home runs, four doubles and 12 RBIs in 18 games. He hit .289 with a .351 on-base percentage, 39 home runs, 53 doubles and 142 RBIs in two seasons (232 games) with the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate.

Olney shared a slightly more optimistic outlook on Montero’s home run potential, saying that several scouts he talked to think Montero is “going to be a guy that’s going to hit 25-35 home runs for a long time.”

“I did a piece on him last winter and I talked to a number of scouts,” Olney said, “and the name that kept coming up over and over was that of Edgar Martinez because they were saying he’s an unusual combination of a guy who can make contact, he doesn’t necessarily strike out a lot, he hits to the opposite field, if you throw him a fastball he’ll take it away, if you throw him a curveball he can turn on it and he can pull it.”

Law used a different name to share a similar observation.

“He’s got unusual right-handed power. I’ve compared him a few times to Frank Thomas, in particular in his hitting approach,” Law said. “He’s so strong in his upper body that, even though he kind of hits off his front foot, he’s still got tremendous power, not just to pull but really to all fields.”

As if those comparisons weren’t promising enough, Stark, a guest on “Brock and Salk,” offered this: “I was told by one team that talked to (Jack Zduriencik) that he views Jesus Montero as Albert Pujols.”

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