Revisiting The Cliff Lee Trade: The Centerpiece

In the first installment of this series, we looked at the three secondary comparisons between the two Cliff Lee trades that we know were discussed on July 9th, 2010: the trade from the Rangers that was accepted, and the trade with the Yankees that, despite it’s strength, the Mariners declined.

We discussed comparisons between two starters, two relievers, and two second basemen.  That leaves us with the centerpieces of the two trades, two guys who were at the time considered two of the finest prospects in all of baseball.

C/DH Jesus Montero (NYY) vs. 1B Justin Smoak (TEX)  
It’s tough to choose between two players who were considered two of the best hitting prospects in the game going in to the 2010 season.  Montero has a truly special bat from the right side of the plate, and has drawn several comparisons to venerable DH and former Mariner hero Edgar Martinez.  Smoak, a switch-hitter, doesn’t have quite the same power as Montero projects to have, but  offers a very well-rounded bat that meshes well with a good eye, patient approach, and what was reputed to be an excellent glove at first base.

We all know what wound up happening: Smoak struggled badly in his first games with the Mariners, and was sent down to Tacoma.  There, he hit well and helped lead Tacoma to a PCL title before getting a September callup back to Seattle, where he hit decently for a couple of weeks to end the year.  The glove hasn’t been as advertised, though.  It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it really isn’t much above average for the position.

Smoak still has a lot of promise, however.  His swing from the right side, which was an issue at times in 2010, has looked a lot better in the spring and in the early games of the season.  His willingness to sit and wait for the right pitch is a huge asset for him, and his stroke generates plenty of power once he finds that pitch.  As he grows more comfortable in the majors, he’s going to drive the ball more, and with his overall contact skills, patience, and eye for the strike zone, he could approach a .400 OBP with over a .500 slugging percentage.  That’s not bad.

So what does Jesus Montero bring to the table?  Well, he may be the most pure all-around hitting prospect in the minor leagues right now, and possibly the best in that field in some years now.  As mentioned earlier, his swing has drawn several comparisons to former Mariner great Edgar Martinez, and that’s not a comparison that scouts use lightly.

Montero’s weight transfer through his swing is buttery smooth, helping him stay behind the ball and  generate tremendous leverage, giving him power to all fields.  His bat control is almost un-natural, and he can put the sweet spot of his bat on the ball almost at will.  He has a great awareness of the strike zone and of the incoming pitch, and uses it to his best advantage.  Montero will get a little over-aggressive and swing at bad pitches at times, but his bat control and raw power helps him make up for that.  That might become an issue at the major-league level, but it’s doubtful it would take him long to adjust and become more disciplined.

There is one drawback to Montero, however: he doesn’t have a position.  While he is theoretically a catcher, his bulk and lack of natural athleticism have made playing the position problematic.  He’s not a natural receiver at all, and he struggles with throwing out baserunners thanks in part to clumsy footwork behind the plate.  To say that Montero is unlikely to stick at the position is, quite frankly, to understate the matter; it’s really only a matter of time before he’s moved from behind the plate.

The problem, however, is that no one is quite sure if Montero can quite handle first base, either, so his “natural” position might ultimately become designated hitter.  With his bat, that’s hardly a bad thing, but it certainly does limit his value to some degree.

So, considering who the Mariners got for Lee, and who they could have had if not for them balking at David Adams’ foot injury, how did they wind up doing?  On Friday, we’ll take a look at exactly that.

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