Montero And Romine Team-Up Behind The Plate
The Yankees realized when they signed Jorge Posada to a new four-year contract over the winter that the veteran would not be behind the plate during the latter portion of the deal. A strained right shoulder that placed Posada on the disabled list in late April for the first time in his career may lead to off-season surgery and a sooner-than-expected move from catcher, yet Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is content with the state of the receiving in the organization, particularly at low Class A Charleston.
The RiverDogs opened the season with a platoon of Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, the Yankees' top two prospects behind the dish, alternating days between catching and designated hitter. With neither player having celebrated his 20th birthday, the New York brass decided the young receivers would be served best in their first year with a full-season club by sharing the duties.
"Being my first year, I think it's a good thing," said the 19-year-old Romine, who suffered a lower body injury in late April but was expected to return to the lineup in mid-May. "The Yankees didn't want to overwork me because it is a lot of games to catch coming right out of high school. It's a lot easier to give it your all when you do it every other day. I want to be an everyday catcher, but I realize I have to start somewhere."
Montero has been satisfied with the split as well, even though he caught 11 of the next 15 games, including seven of the first eight, after Romine went on the disabled list. The unexpected increase in activity proved beneficial for the 18-year-old from Venezuela, who has shown why he was ranked as the Yankees' sixth-best prospect heading into the current campaign.
"I'm concentrating more on my catching than on my hitting and working hard with the coaches in order to become a better all-around catcher," Montero said through an interpreter, coach Henry Mercedes. "I'm working on everything because you can never be too good back there."
Even though Montero and Romine, who was ranked 22nd among Yankee prospects prior to this season, entered this year with solid reputations, Charleston skipper Torre Tyson admits to being overwhelmed with his initial impressions.
"If you take their ages into account, it's pretty amazing what they've done so far," said Tyson, who is in his second season as Charleston's manager. "We haven't seen Austin as much, and he has some stuff to prove. As far as Jesus is concerned, I'm shocked. The first five or six days, I thought he was hot. After about 25 days, I thought, 'O.K., maybe he's good.' He's been impressive. Even on days when he's not feeling it, he always seems to come up with a clutch hit for us. I wish I could catch him 140 games, but that's not a good thing for someone who's 18 years old."
The expectations have been high for Montero since he signed for $2 million in 2006, the highest bonus among any international free agent that year. While that sum was reduced by $400,000 for unexplained reasons shortly thereafter, Montero's potential has remained bullish.
Montero made his professional debut last year in the Gulf Coast League and showed tremendous raw power while hitting .280 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 33 games. The lone negative was his success rate—9 percent—at throwing out would-be base stealers. Some questioned whether or not Montero would remain behind the plate, with Tyson among the doubters.
"When I saw him a year ago, I thought there was no hope of him even catching A ball," Tyson said. "To see how far he's come from then to now with the instruction he's received makes me think he can catch in the big leagues."
In addition to daily instruction with his catching skills, Montero has improved his body by developiing a more muscular frame over the past year after he weighed in at 225 pounds a year ago. Add to that his natural strength and the results could be imposing in all phases of his game.
"Hopefully he will stick with the regimen they've set up," Tyson said. "If so, he'll develop into a beast. He doesn't have to hit a ball good to hit it out of the park. That's something I haven't seen at this level in a long time."
Arm Strength Galore
Romine, the Yankees' second-round draft pick last June who signed for $500,000 out of a California high school, has been limited in his early days as a professional. He played in only one game after signing last year due to a thumb injury before missing three weeks this season. Scouting reports have been mixed on Romine, with some liking his bat while others prefer his defense.
"I've heard everything, from one extreme to the other," Romine said. "I just try to go out there and do the best I can. My defense has come a long way and I feel it has caught up with my offense. I've always thought of myself as an offensive catcher, but I've worked really hard behind the plate since I got drafted and I feel I'm starting to see results."
The Yankees showed how highly they think of Romine by assigning him to Charleston despite only one game of experience in the GCL. He demonstrated improving footwork behind the plate in spring training as well as solid catch-and-throw skills that have the potential to become a significant tool.
"The first thing that strikes me is his arm strength," Tyson said. "Once he figures out he can be quicker with his feet and his overall body instead of trying to rely on throwing it 100 miles an hour, you're going to see some impressive throws behind the plate."
In many ways, Romine and Montero have opposing strengths and weaknesses, yet both are attempting to become more like the other. Still, they are different players, with Montero displaying the potential to crush pitchers and Romine showing the ability to battle regardless of the count. And with the Yankees looking to continue the platoon behind the plate for the next three months, there's a good chance the organization will have a better idea of who the long-term replacement for Posada could be.