Yankees top prospect Jesus Montero has been dealing with a bit of a groin problem, but it's hard not to like his current stats at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. He's hitting .375 with 4 doubles, a homer, 4 RBI, a .484 SLG, and amazingly a .369 OBP (no walks, out trying to stretch once) in 15 games. He's going to need to get back into games, get his OBP up, and show some more power, but we know he's capable of doing all of those. How long can the Yankees keep this guy in the minors? But where could they play him? Russell Martin is destroying the AL to the tune of a .290/.364/.594 line. Jorge Posada at DH has just a .131/.231/.391 line, but he has 6 home runs, and the Yankees aren't going to easily bench a player who's making 13.1 million dollars this season. 1st base isn't an option with Mark Teixeira there, so all the regular positions that catchers play are out of the question. But, if Montero is still hitting .370 in a month, how could the Yankees possibly keep him in the minors? What could the Yankees do?
Well, you have to at least give a look to the left field and right field positions. Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher both had nice games Thursday, but they're still hitting .169/.229/.385 and .237/.351/.303 respectively. Gardner has 7 extra-base hits, 3 homers, and driven in 6 runs, but he's been successful on just 4 of 7 stolen base attempts, while Swisher has just 3 extra base hits, 1 homer, although he has driven in 12 runs. Couldn't Montero be better than either of them right now? Who in the world wouldn't think that Montero could at least put up at least a .275/.340/.400 line in the majors right now? Gardner and Swisher are nice players, but how could you leave one of the best hitters in professional baseball stranded at Triple-A? Brian Cashman could probably trade either Gardner or Swisher within a couple of days. Why won't he?
First of all, there's the obvious question of defense. Gardner is the best defensive left fielder in baseball, and replacing him with Montero would be an enormous defensive downgrade. Swisher has worked hard defensively, and he had a positive UZR in 2010 (and so far in 2011). Even replacing Swisher with Montero would be a big downgrade defensively. Or would it? Earlier in Yankee history, the Yankees had another case where they had two good catchers. From the mid-1950's to the mid-1960's, the Yankees had both Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. So what did they do? They had both Berra and Howard play some left field and right field. Berra played 260 career games in the outfield while Howard played 265. And while Berra and Howard weren't Gold Glove-caliber defensively, they certainly were good enough. Berra posted a .972 Fld% and a 2.08 RF/9 in 149 career games in left field. The league averages were a .973 Fld% and a 2.03 RF/9. He certainly was an average fielder in left. In 166 games in right, Berra wasn't as good, posting just a .966 Fld% and a 1.65 RF/9 compared to the league averages of .974 and 1.97, but even in that case, he survived defensively. Howard was pretty solid in 228 games in left, posting a .982 Fld% and a 1.98 RF/9 compared to the league averages of .979 and 2.13. (Keep in mind that Berra and Howard did not play the outfield in all the same seasons.) Howard played just 42 games in right, but he actually was a plus defender, posting a .987 Fld% and a 2.33 RF/9 compared to the league average compared to the league averages of .979 and 1.99. Could Montero put up similar numbers?
Even if he could, Montero would have to start learning the new position, and that could take away from his focus on hitting, which wouldn't be good for him in the long run. Also, Gardner and Swisher play important roles for the Yankees. Gardner is the Yankees' only legitimate 30-stolen base threat (although if he gets on base, he could steal 50), and Swisher is great in the clubhouse, so the Yankees shouldn't panic and hinder Montero's development. Unless Posada or Martin gets hurt, the Yankees should allow Montero to keep working defensively at catcher in Triple-A until September, when he'll get his first cup of coffee in the big leagues. Then, next year, he'll be ready to take over at DH and backup catcher when Posada retires and use his bat to the best of his ability. Yankee fans, don't let the sruggles of Gardner make you scream out for Jesus Montero. Keeping Montero in the minors for know will be best for him in the long run.