Sunday, January 15, 2012

Montero for Pineda: The Only Thing Rarer than a Stud Hitter? An Ace.

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By John Woods

"Montero-Pineda is one of most fascinating deals in years. Two young studs with star power. No money factor. A pure, old-time baseball trade." -Jayson Stark 

Nobody does this type of deal anymore, except in 2K12 or on talk radio. And between two teams that supposedly wouldn’t trade anymore after the Cliff Lee fiasco… It’s unheard of. Yes, Jesus Montero might be the best hitting prospect in the game. But his value dips if he’s just a DH.

Had I been the GM I would have let Montero be the full-time catcher; his hitting likely would have made up for his supposed defensive lapses. A catcher’s actual hitting ability is inversely proportional to his supposed defensive ability – “calling the game,” framing pitches, that sort of intangible stuff – which is why Jeff Mathis, the worst hitter in the sport today, starts at catcher for the Angels.

But the Yankees clearly didn’t think he could play at catcher regularly, and they don’t lack for prospects. Austin Romine could be the starter this year without Russell Martin in front of him, and he can easily play the position. Gary Sanchez is supposed to have Montero’s hitting ability and stick behind the plate. And Montero had nowhere else to move; thanks to Mark Teixeira, the obvious place to put him is filled. It’s not like Montero was previously untouchable. They’ve been dangling him for years. He would have been in Seattle already (for Cliff Lee) had the Mariners not asked for Eduardo Nunez as well. (Or in Kansas City had Dayton Moore wanted to trade Joakim Soria. Glad that didn’t happen.) Lee costs eight figures a year. Michael Pineda will be cost controlled for the next five years, with the next two being minimum salary years.

Pineda also happens to be a possible ace. The best statistical indicator for pitching success is strikeouts, as they’re one of the few things a pitcher can control. (Flyball/groundball rate and walks being the other major things.) Pineda struck out over a batter an inning last year. At age 22. He walked a bit too many batters, close to 3 per 9 innings, but that’s still a good number. The two main issues are with his flyball tendencies and durability, but neither are crippling. Pineda gave up 18 HRs last year, an above-average number. And after a very good first half (including an All-Star appearance) he regressed over the second half after reaching a career high in innings pitched. Had this been a few years into his career it would be a very big problem, but he’s only 22. It remains to be seen how he’ll play in both a tougher division and a hitter’s park.

Still, this is a pitcher worth trading Montero for. Even better is that the Yankees got Pineda without having to decimate their farm system - like, say, the Reds did for Mat Latos, or the Nationals with Gio Gonzalez. The Mariners even threw in one of their best prospects, Jose Campos (basically the same as Pineda, except raw as hell). The Yankees only had to give up Hector Noesi, who is an ML-caliber starter, but doesn’t have a high ceiling. And, coupled with the signing of Hiroki Kuroda, this likely means the end of A.J. Burnett’s career in pinstripes.

Probably the biggest fault the Yankees have had over the last decade is their inability to develop pitchers, and that’s why Burnett got the contract he did in 2008. Not having to sit through yet another bad AJ start makes the deal worthwhile by itself. As a devoted follower of the Yankee farm system, and a fan in general, it would have been very nice to see Montero in the Yankee lineup for the next decade. And thanks to Montero’s breakout September, if anyone else had been in the trade, the inevitable outcry over trading the future wouldn’t be happening right now. But the only thing rarer than a stud hitter is an ace, and Pineda has that ability. And the Yankees now have one.

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