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M’s take big gamble with Montero

Jesus Montero has had his skills as a catcher questioned, but everyone agrees he can hit. (Associated Press)
Jesus Montero has had his skills as a catcher questioned, but everyone agrees he can hit. (Associated Press)

This past December at the winter meetings in Dallas, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman marveled over the just-breaking news that Albert Pujols was signing with the Angels for $254 million.

He told New York reporters, “I don’t know him (Pujols) personally, but I see what he does with that bat, and it’s Montero-like.’’

Cashman was being playful (mostly), but Seattle is banking there’s truth behind the hyperbole that has followed Jesus Montero since the Yankees signed him out of Venezuela in 2006 at age 16.

From the day he arrived in the states, Montero has been heralded as The Next Big Thing, the latest candidate to join the Yankees’ endless succession of marquee talent.

Pujols is far from the only superstar to whom Montero has been regularly compared – even though he has played just 18 games in the major leagues, all of them coming last September.

Baseball America editor Jim Callis has ranked him ahead of the much-hyped Bryce Harper as a hitting prospect. When the Yankees gave him a $1.6 million bonus to sign as a teenager, scouts said he possessed the strength of Bo Jackson. Yankees manager Joe Girardi saw Montero’s opposite-field power in spring training and said the kid reminded him of “a young Alex.”

You can guess which Alex he was talking about. A perusal of articles on Montero also found comparisons to Miguel Cabrera, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Mike Piazza, Robinson Cano, Edgar Martinez and Joe Mauer.

Pretty heady stuff, and now the M’s, not the Yankees, are the ones poised to reap the benefits of Montero’s talent as he nears the point of major- league readiness. They acquired the slugging catcher, now 22, in a trade Friday that resulted in All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda heading to the Yankees. The deal won’t become official until physicals are completed.

Optimally, from the Mariners’ standpoint, Montero will fulfill the prediction of Baseball America’s editor in chief, John Manuel, who said Saturday, “For me, he’s the No. 3 or 4 prospect in the whole game. He’s a future star, and the kind of guy you build a franchise around, in my mind.

“He has a chance to be the Mariners’ best hitter for the next decade.” Yet Montero still has to prove that he can achieve the heights predicted of him. There are still questions associated with Montero that have some M’s fans questioning why they gave up a potential ace in Pineda to get him.

The most hotly debated issue is whether Montero has the defensive tools to catch in the major leagues. If he can do that, and put up elite power numbers in the process, then Seattle has unearthed a singular talent.

If Montero has to move to first base, designated hitter, or even, as some have speculated, a corner outfield position, then his value is lessened – though obviously still considerable if he develops into a perennial 30-homer, 100-RBI man.

Keith Law, an ESPN analyst who formerly worked in the Toronto Blue Jays’ front office, is in the school that believes Montero will never make it as a catcher.

“I don’t think he has any of the things you’re looking for as a catcher, except arm strength,’’ he said. “But it takes him so long to throw, that doesn’t play, either. If you can’t control the running game, you can’t catch. Piazza was dogged by that his whole career, and he’s a better receiving catcher than Montero.’’

It should be noted Law is a big-time Montero supporter even if he never catches, because he believes his offensive potential is so high.

“It took me a long time to come around on this, but he’s such a good hitter, it’s really not going to matter,’’ Law said. “He’s going to hit for average. He has great bat speed, and he’s so strong that, even though he hits off his front foot like Frank Thomas, he’s going to hit for power, too.”

Butch Wynegar, a former major-league catcher who has worked extensively with Montero as a Yankees instructor, dismisses the comparison to Piazza.

“Monty is not Mike Piazza,’’ he told the New York Post last spring. “He is not going to be a hitter-only as a catcher. He is going to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues who can handle the catching. I truly believe that.”

Here’s what Manuel is adamant about, just like most everyone who has seen him with a bat: “Montero can really flat-out hit. I’ve never had one person tell me he can’t hit.”

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