Montero Covetously Eyes Yankees' Catching Job

INDIANAPOLIS—Jesus Montero is in his fourth professional season, but sometimes it's easy to forget that the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Venezuelan is not yet old enough to order a beer with dinner.

The 20-year-old catcher plays for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre now, but many view him as eventual heir to Jorge Posada, the Yankees great who turns 39 in August.

But Montero will face stiff competition in a New York system chock full of possible successors, including Francisco Cervelli and prospects like Austin Romine, J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez.

"We do have pretty good depth right now, which is good," Yankees catching coordinator Julio Mosquera said.who has been working closely with Montero,  "It makes everybody work hard."

Scranton batting coach Butch Wynegar concurs: "This is the first time I've really had the chance to see him every day. This kid's the total package."

Wynegar should know. He made two all-star teams in 13 seasons spent behind the plate.

Jesus Alejandro Montero was born in Valencia, a commercial city 80 miles west of capital Caracas. His father, also named Jesus, owns a garage. "He works with cars and all that," said Montero, who speaks excellent English. "He taught me. It's my hobby, outside of baseball."

Catching is also a kind of tradition in Montero's family. His mother Cristina Lopez caught for Venezuela's national softball team. His younger brother, Jesus Rafael Montero, is a catcher with the Cardinals who spent last season in the Venezuelan Summer League.

Montero started catching at age 13. He idolized the hitting skills of Miguel Cabrera as a youngster, but rooted for the Yankees. "Because they always win—like, always!" he said with a laugh.

His favorite player was—who else?—Posada.

"Montero was always strong, more than the average player his age," said Francisco Cartaya, the Rockies' director of operations in Venezuela. "Since he was 13 years old, he started working on his baseball skills with the goal of signing a contract."

A Star Is Born

By the time Montero was 15, his reputation as a prodigy had spread throughout Venezuelan baseball circles. He began playing for a team in a developmental league sponsored by MLB clubs and teams from the Venezuelan League. Scouts took notice of his 400-foot drives and the righthanded hitter's ability to hit to all fields.

"During batting practice, you could see his power," Cartaya said.

By 2006, Montero was considered the top prospect in Latin America. That July, the 16-year-old signed with the Yankees for a $2 million bonus that was subsequently reduced to $1.6 million. Reasons for the withholding have never been revealed, leading to rampant speculation.

Montero himself claims he's not sure. "I don't really know what happened there," he said. "I think it was the taxes."

His offensive promise was evident in 2007, when he embarked on his first pro season. He batted .280/.366/.421 in 33 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. But he threw out just three of 32 basestealers, fueling speculation that his future was, in one critic's words, "first base or ornamental fountain."

A breakout season in 2008 for low Class A Charleston sent Montero's stock soaring. He led the league in hits (171), while finishing second in hitting (.326) and total bases (258). Fifty-two of his hits were for extra bases, including 17 homers. A club official proclaimed him the organization's best offensive prospect since Derek Jeter.

"I just try to hit the ball good," said Montero. "I see the ball when the pitch is thrown, and I try to hit the ball hard."

Despite a strong throwing arm, his height and bulk seemed to work against him as a catcher. But speculation that he would have to shift to first base or left field doesn't sit well with Montero. "I always wanted to be a catcher," he said. "I love the position."

Rumors of a switch continued last year, when Montero hit a cumulative .337/.389/.562 with 17 homers in 347 at-bats. But by then, the Yankee brass realized the need for patience.

"He has made pretty good strides," said Mosquera, a native of Panama. "He's actually catching while he's developing. He works hard every time I see him. He never gives up."

Wynegar also spends time tutoring Montero on the art of catching. "He teaches me a lot out here," said Montero, who reportedly shed 15 pounds during the first three weeks of spring camp. "I think about every single thing he tells me, every time."

Don't Rule Out Catcher

Wynegar's not convinced that Montero's future is at another position.

"His throwing has gotten so much better," he said. "He used to be a long arm-stroke guy and really tried to throw the ball hard. We got him back to thinking 'quick' to second base. I think that's a big thing for Monty, because he's got enough arm strength."

And for catchers, claims Wynegar, size doesn't matter. "Carlton Fisk was a big guy," he said. "A lot of it has to do with flexibility. He's in the weight room, he's with our strength and conditioning coach, working on his flexibility and everything.

"His weight's down right now and he's looking good. He's a big boy, but as long as he keeps the flexibility in his hips, he'll be fine. He hasn't done anything that tells me he's not going to catch in the big leagues one day."

Montero's education this season hasn't been limited to defensive work. In a game at Durham on May 7, manager Dave Miley removed him from a contest and benched him for two games when he decided Montero didn't go all out on a ground ball.

"I told him I was running hard, but he said he didn't see it," Montero said. "He made the decision. He's the manager. He's right. I told him I'm sorry. Next time, I have to run harder than I did."

But as June dawned, Montero's bat remained mired in a slump. He was batting .224/.300/.348 with three home runs in 161 at-bats.

"I like where he is right now," said Wynegar. "If you asked me a week ago—hah! He had a lot of movement going on, trying to hit the ball too hard. His body was getting in front of his hands, things like that.

"But this kid has tremendously quick hands," Wynegar said. "Sometimes he hits a ball, and you say, 'Ahhh, he just got under it!' And suddenly you look up and it's going out of the ballpark. I'm not comparing him to A-Rod, but that's the kind of ball that A-Rod hits."

Venezuelan journalist Ismael Granadillo foresees Montero as a real impact player at the major league level. "He has raw power and can hit for average," he said. "He can be like Mike Piazza. As soon as he develops into a more mature hitter, he's going to be on a major league roster.

"Maybe he's gong to stay as a catcher because (Mark Teixeira) is going to be in New York for a while, but when the time comes, he is going to be moved to another position. It was the same situation with Miguel Cabrera. He started as a shortstop, then moved to third base, the outfield, third base again and now first base."

Meanwhile, Montero keeps working at improving his work behind the plate, especially blocking balls in the dirt, calling a good game and being on the same page as his pitchers.

"I want to be a catcher with the Yankees," he said. "I want to help them win every single time. From here to the big leagues is not that much, but I have to learn some more."

Pete Cava is a freelance writer
based in Indianapolis