At first I sort of rolled my eyes at this post, but the more I thought about it, the more I think Steve is right. Don;t get me wrong, he’s still drastically overrating a lot of the Yankees’ minor leaguers, particularly the pitchers currently in Triple-A, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what Dellin Betances, who’s currently walking about 5 batters per 9 innings in Double-A, has to do with anything, but his point about the Yankees generally being timid about bringing their youngsters up is pretty solid.
The basic argument against this is always something along the lines of “he won’t help much now,” or “someone else is doing well enough in that position now.” And that’s pretty much always true.It’s true right now, in fact, as the Yankees look like one of the three best teams in baseball, will probably make the playoffs, and have Russell Martin doing a decent job behind the plate. It was also true in 1995, when the Yankees won the wild card with Tony Fernandez as their starting shortstop, and a young Derek Jeter committed 29 errors as a Triple-A shortstop.
In fact, had the blogosphere been around in 1995 like it is now, I’m pretty sure we’d be having the same arguments about Derek Jeter we’ve been having more or less all season about Montero. Jeter and Montero were pretty similar in terms of production, with Jeter getting on base a lot more but Montero flashing more power, and both of them had issues with their defense at premium defensive positions. It’s not really a stretch for me to imagine some people intoning that Jeter should just go back to Columbus and spend time honing his glove in the spring of 1996, after all, the Yankees would probably be just fine without him for awhile.
And indeed they might have been. But they did wind up bringing Jeter up, and Jeter was pretty bad defensively, costing the team 14 runs according to Fangraphs. He also hit .314/.370/.430, was worth 2.6 fWAR, won the Rookie of the Year, and helped the Yankees to a World Series championship. And thus a legend was born. In 1998 Jeter was actually above average with the glove, although only slightly, and hit .324/.384/.481 as the Yankees won 114 regular season games as their second World Series in three years. In 1999 Jeter would cost the team 11 runs in the field, but still post a 7.5 fWAR thanks to a .349/.438/.522 slash line, and probably should have been the American League M.V.P. Again, the Yankees won the World Series. In 2000 Jeter cost the team a downright astounding 23 runs in the field, but was still worth just shy of 4 wins (3.8 fWAR), thanks to his bat. And yep, another World Series title.
Of course, I’m not predicting a similar Hall of Fame career for Montero at this point, heck, I’m not even saying he’ll definitely be a successful big leaguer. But there are still two important lessons the Yankees should have learned from this. First, hitting is more important than defense, even at (or especially at) premium positions. You’d think Jorge Posada alone would have taught them this, even absent the debate over the quality of Jeter’s glove over the years. Secondly, there’s no such thing as being ready for the majors if by “ready” you mean “will put up big offensive numbers right away.” Even Jeter’s very good numbers were only good for a wRC+ of 106 and 110 in his first two seasons, thanks to the increased run environment around baseball as a whole. Those are good numbers, of course, but nowhere near elite. In the next for seasons he hit to a wRC+ of 133, 157, 136, and 134 respectively, and his career mark is 124. Even first ballot Hall of Famers have to adjust to major league pitching at first, and putting that period off doesn’t make the youngster any more ready, it just delays his development in most cases. You just can’t learn to hit big league pitching at Triple-A.
Do the Yankees need Jesus Montero? No, not really. There’s not a whole lot of room for this team to improve at the margins, because they are one of the best teams in baseball, and they’ll probably make the playoffs. On the other hand, the Yankees have the kind of financial resources that make it possible to get the sort of veteran stopgaps that can make it such that that’s always the case. Even with Russell Martin hitting an atrocious .182/.295/.284 since May 1st, the Angels need Mike Trout more than the Yankees need Jesus Montero. The Braves had a similar need for Jason Heyward last year, and the Nationals need to get Bryce Harper to the majors ASAP. The Yankees are simply never going to have that sort of need, except in so much as they play in a very competitive division.
But then, they probably didn’t need Derek Jeter in 1996 either. They probably could have found a 1-2 fWAR veteran to fill the shortstop position for a year or two while Jeter attempted (probably futilely) to improve his defense. As the organization prepares to celebrate Jeter’s 3,000th career hit (hopefully) sometime this weekend, they’d do well to do an honest retrospective on the decision to promote him to the big leagues in the first place, and apply the obvious lessons to Montero. It’s not at all hard to imagine an alternate history in which the Yankees treated Jeter the way they’ve treated Montero this season, and Yankee fans everywhere should be thankful they didn’t.
Now get Montero up here already.