Montero's welcome to the MLB jungle

For elite baseball prospects, there’s a fine line between gaining valuable experience in the minor leagues and stagnating in the bushes. Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals’ resident wunderkind, reached that point in a mere 300 plate appearances with Class-A Hagerstown this spring. The tell-tale sign came when he seemed disinterested in batting practice and disengaged during games.

“He was bored out of his mind,” a scout told me in early July, after Harper had received a promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. “He’d mastered the league.”

By most accounts, Yankees prospect Jesus Montero fell victim to a similar malady this year. Montero was unenthused about spending a second season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and it showed in his body language and wandering attention span. But like most prodigies, the kid has a way of ratcheting up his game when the stakes are high and the adrenaline starts flowing.

On May 12, Scranton traveled to Buffalo to face the Mets’ International League club. In the eighth inning of a tight game, Montero was standing on deck when Buffalo manager Tim Teufel lifted his starter and called for Bobby Parnell, a rehabbing big leaguer who was clocked throwing 103 mph last year at Comerica Park in Detroit. Your name can be John Doe or John Q. Public, and if you've cracked 100, your reputation precedes you.

“Parnell threw a half-assed slider, and Montero swung and missed,” recalled a scout who was in Buffalo that night. “The next pitch he hit 400 feet to win the ballgame. I said right there, ‘This kid needs to be challenged.’ It was like all of a sudden he came to life in the on-deck circle. You could see the difference. He had a little hop in his step when he came to the plate. He just needed to be challenged.”

I have no idea if Montero can ever be a serviceable defensive catcher in the major leagues. Some scouts think he’s a DH-in-waiting, pure and simple. And when less judgmental talent evaluators tell me he’s “improving” behind the plate, I generally take that as code for, “He has no prayer.” Maybe it’s because I heard for three years that Jeff Clement, the third overall pick of the 2005 draft, was “improving” as a receiver. As it turns out, Clement can’t catch or hit particularly well. That combination doesn’t bode very well for job advancement.

But where Montero’s concerned, the veteran scout I spoke with on Thursday seemed more optimistic than most of his peers about the Yankees prospect’s all-around game. If Mike Piazza, Javy Lopez and Jorge Posada could hit well enough to make their teams overlook some other deficiencies, isn’t it too soon to pigeonhole Montero?

“I think he’ll hit .290 with 25 to 30 home runs,” the scout said. “And who’s to say he can’t catch in the big leagues? He has good agility. He has good coordination, and he has better-than-average arm strength. He’s a big guy, but Carlton Fisk was a pretty big guy, and he was a pretty good catcher.”

The Yankees have already shown faith in Montero by bringing him up right into the middle of Armageddon-ville: He made his debut before another sellout crowd at Fenway Park, and with just 1½ games separating the AL East rivals. Naturally, Montero kept coming to the plate in pressure situations. He struck out, flied out and grounded out to strand six runners in his first three at-bats, then reached base and scored a run after he was clipped by a 92-mph two-seamer from Alfredo Aceves. He flied out against Dan Wheeler in his final at-bat to register an 0-for-4 for the evening.

Some of the smaller, less noticeable signs were encouraging. Montero showed a willingness and the aptitude to take outside pitches the opposite way. He passed on a few tempting borderline pitches, and took a big rip at a letter-high 93-mph fastball from Jon Lester and fouled it back to the screen. We’ll see if he can spoil that same pitch when it’s coming in at 97 or 98.

The wall-to-wall coverage of prospects these days creates an early sense of anticipation that does a number on perspective. The Yankees signed Montero to a $2 million deal out of his native Venezuela in July 2006. We’ve been hearing his name for so long that you’d think he was 25 years old and running out of time. But Montero was just 16 when he signed, and he doesn’t turn 22 until November.

In hindsight, Derek Jeter was fortunate. He made his big league debut on May 29, 1995 in Seattle, before a crowd of 18,498. The Yankees were 17 years removed from their last title, and the YES Network’s first broadcast was still seven years down the road. Jeter went 0-for-5 against Rafael Carmona and the Mariners bullpen, with his father watching from the Kingdome stands and his mother back home in Michigan attending his sister’s softball game.

Like Mike Stanton, Buster Posey, Eric Hosmer and other recent phenoms, Montero has been brought to the Show as a walking, talking media event in spikes, with the added burden of having to prove himself against talented pitchers tailoring game plans specifically for his at-bats. He will try to make his mark in a lineup filled with superstars, and earn himself lots of postseason playing time in the process.

Time will tell if Montero is the long-term successor to Posada as the Yankees’ catcher, an All-Star-caliber designated hitter or an overhyped prospect who has trouble making the transition to everyday play in the majors. If he didn't realize it before Thursday night, he knows it now: Life with the Yankees is a long way from Scranton.