TAMPA, Fla. -- It is way too early, of course, to pronounce Jesus Montero a bust, or to declare that the New York Yankees' belief in his potential, expressed early, often and loudly all winter long, was a delusion exposed by the first light of spring.
But there is no other way to look at his demotion on Monday back to Triple-A in favor of Gustavo Molina, who isn't even related to The Molinas, baseball's First Family of Defensive Catchers, as anything but a blown opportunity.
In fact, the guy the Yankees eventually choose to go north with them this week to back up Russell Martin may not even be with the ballclub right now, reluctant as the team has been to actually give the job to Molina yet.
The Yankees aren't sure they want to hand the often-insignificant job of backup catcher -- who might get in a half-dozen games, at most, before Francisco Cervelli returns from his broken foot -- to a no-hit glove man with all of 23 major-league games to his credit.
But they are quite sure who they do not want to give it to: Montero. Nor to Austin Romine, his Double-A counterpart who coming into camp was considered a somewhat superior backstop and a quite inferior hitter.
Turns out in the harsh glare of their first big-league camp, both Montero and Romine were roughly equal. Neither hit very much -- Montero hit .250 with no home runs and two RBIs, Romine .182 with one RBI that came on a home run hit, rather poignantly, on Sunday, the day before the axe fell -- and more glaringly, neither had shown himself capable of catching at the big-league level, even if it would have been only once a week.
In a camp in which short, portly, 37-year-old Bartolo Colon pitched himself back into the majors after an 18-month hiatus, junkballing Freddy Garcia won himself a starting job and Mark Prior, out of the game for six years, showed enough to convince the manager he is on his way back, the failure of Montero to make the Yankees is the biggest upset of all.
The official reason is that both Montero and Romine will benefit more from returning to the minors, where they can catch every day -- and it is implied, improve enough to be given another shot in another camp -- rather than sit on a major-league bench five out of every seven days.
But the truth is, neither Montero nor Romine was ready to make the next step. In the case of Romine, it is no shock. He has never played at a level greater than Double-A and was considered a longshot at best to win the backup job.
All winter long, GM Brian Cashman told us about Montero's "potential" and "high-end bat." He said it would take something "very special" to trade away a prospect like this, how the Yankees had no doubt he would make the jump from Triple-A to the major leagues as easy as he had made all the others, from high school on up.
He did everything but call him a sure thing, which he didn't have to, because it most certainly was implied that Montero couldn't miss. You almost started to feel as badly for Cervelli in trying to keep his job as you did for Evander Holyfield going in to fight Mike Tyson. You just knew the poor guy had no shot.
Well, it turns out Tyson really had no shot and neither did Montero.
First of all, Cervelli came to camp lean, jacked up and ready to fight for his job. Montero, 21 years old and big, looked a bit soft around the eyes and the middle, as if he had just pushed away from a hearty meal. And right from the jump, Cervelli opened eyes with his newly live bat and his obviously more polished style behind the plate.
It was just shaping up to be a good fight when Cervelli went down after fouling a ball off his left foot on March 2. At that point, there was nothing, it seemed, that could stop Montero.
Except for Montero himself. Despite Yankees manager Joe Girardi's daily proclamations of the "great strides" Montero was making defensively, it was obvious he still had a lot to learn in terms of framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt and even camping under pop flies. He seemed to get crossed up often and sometimes did not appear comfortable in his crouch, a problem Girardi attributed to his unusual height (6-foot-4) for a catcher.
But most shockingly, the kid with the high-end bat never really got it out of low gear. From the early days of live BP, Montero's bat seemed sluggish. The ball seemed to roll over more often than jump off his bat. Only once can I recall a shot that made me take notice, a ringing double into the gap in a game here a couple of weeks ago.
"I think Montero is a much better player than he showed offensively," Girardi said. "I think he pressed. I told him, 'Look, when you do come up one day, try to learn from this experience."'
Tellingly, Girardi said that after he told Montero he wouldn't be coming to New York, Montero played in a minor league game and "hit three rockets, hit a home run."
You hate to think it, but certainly it's a lot easier to do when the pressure is off.
Now, Montero and Romine, who dressed side-by-side all spring, one's fate pretty much chained to the other's -- if Montero had made the Yankees, Romine would have advanced to Triple-A -- leave together, their once bright futures now, if not shrouded in doubt, at least open to question.
Neither was able to unseat a widely considered mediocre incumbent with a broken foot, nor a journeyman who has never been able to stick in the major leagues for than 10 games with any of the four teams he has played for.
Suddenly, Gary Sanchez, an 18-year-old who earlier this spring underwent surgery for a congenital heart ailment, leaps to the head of the Yankees' catching prospect class.
Austin Romine, who thought he had at least escaped the purgatory of Trenton, returns there hoping to get another chance. "They told me it's just a phone call away," he said. "So I just have to keep working hard."
And Jesus Montero, who was ticketed for the Bronx, is instead headed back to Scranton to insure that his first major league training camp will not be his last.
"I mean, it's not the last opportunity," Montero said. "I have more to come in the future. That's the way I gotta think. It woulda been fine for me to play in the big leagues, but this is a lot better for me. I like playing every day."
This year, he'll play every day. In Scranton, which just a month ago was not how the Jesus Montero story was supposed to go.