After we chose to rank Jesus Montero ahead of Carlos Santana on our top 15 catching prospect list, I received a lot of good Montero vs. Santana questions. Evan Brunell succinctly asked what most people were thinking: Is Montero's offensive upside that significant to rank him ahead of Santana, who will stick at catcher?
Will Santana be the better all-around big leaguer in 2010? Probably. 2011? Maybe. 2012 and beyond? I don't think so.
First off, I agree with common opinion that it's highly unlikely Montero will continue to catch once he reaches the big leagues. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, he'd have to be a freak of an athlete to stick there. It makes sense to let him play his way off the position, but the odds are stacked against him spending his career as a catcher.
Let's discuss Santana's defensive value:
His arm is very good and he's a good blocker. But his receiving skills are terrible. And pitchers do not like throwing to him. The Indians have acknowledged these weaknesses.
"He has above average skills when it comes to catching and throwing," Ross Atkins, Indians Director of Player Development, told The Cleveland Plain Dealer prior to the 2009 season. "He still needs to refine his receiving skills, his game calling ability and his ability to lead a pitching staff."
A good receiver will catch the ball where it's thrown and hold it there. Poor receivers drop balls and move the ball after they catch it, taking away from the odds of the pitch being called a strike. Elite receivers have soft hands and are smooth and balanced behind the dish. Receiving is basically catching the ball. Guys who don't catch the ball well typically aren't above-average defensive catchers -- basic enough, right?
I believe that just about anyone can learn to call a good game. Some guys have a knack for it and others take time to learn. If I'm a pitcher and I'm having trouble communicating with my catcher, I'm frustrated. He's supposed to make me look good.
So are Santana's current defensive weaknesses going to force him to move off the position? I Doubt it.
But I wouldn't be shocked if he moves back to third base. And he may be a below-average catcher in the bigs. That said, you can't teach someone to throw as well as he does. His arm is definitely above-average. He's pretty coordinated, too. So all-in-all, Santana has a solid chance of becoming an average defensive catcher -- he is still new to the position.
While there isn't much info out there about Montero's defensive value, it will almost certainly be less than Santana's. And it could be a lot less if he has to move to first base or designated hitter. He has stolen two bases over the last two years. That's probably a sign that he doesn't have enough speed to be an above-average corner outfielder. I'm not sure if he could pull off third base either.
If we ranked Montero among first base prospects, he would have been our no. 1. But will he hit enough to make up the large gap in defensive value from catcher to first base?
For starters, the age difference between Montero and Santana is significant -- over 3.5 years.
Santana is a good contact hitter -- he has struggled with good inside fastballs -- but Montero is better. And while Santana has the patience advantage by a landslide, I see a lot more power projection in Montero. The four swings below provide a nice preview:
Note how quickly and easily the bat gets through the zone. And then how the ball explodes off of it. Effortless power.
Both Santana and Montero hit the ball in the air regularly -- lots of LD and fly balls from each. So they're both going to have high extra-base-hit totals. If you like to take the countable stats route, remember to keep in mind that Montero only had 378 plate appearances in 2009.
The offensive side of things comes down to if Montero can make up for his lack of patience through his power and contact skills.
Montero was 1.17 deviations better than the average Eastern League strikeout rate (0.99 better in the FSL). Santana was 0.47 deviations better than the Eastern League average. Given their age difference, I believe Montero is a MUCH better contact hitter than Santana.
The two exhibited similar power numbers in 2009. Santana has made huge strides with his power over the last two seasons -- he had a .116 IsoP in '06 (High-A) and .148 in '07 (Low-A). While Santana could easily become an above-average MLB power hitter, Montero could turn into one of the top power hitters on the planet."Some scouts make the argument that Montero is the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues," Frankie Piliere wrote last month. "He's shown offensive skills reminiscent of Miguel Cabrera on his way up."
Maybe Montero's amazing 2009 season has been a little overshadowed by the fact that Jason Heyward also mashed in Double-A as a teenager? Also note that Montero was fresh off his best professional power month ever when he broke his middle finger late last season -- .257 IsoP, 6 HR, 28% LD with a .329 BABIP in 103 July PA.
I definitely see the argument for Santana over Montero. And I know there are people who prefer Buster Posey over Montero, too.
As far as 2010 impact goes, Posey and Santana are significantly better bets to be more valuable than Montero. But the difficult thing about analyzing minor leaguers is determining which players have the most room for growth -- that's why many prospect junkies are obsessed with tools. Montero has a lot of raw ability and plenty of development time on his side. And he's already proven that he has a very high offensive floor. With his skill set, he could very well turn into an annual .390+ wOBA guy.
According to Bradley Dunn the positional difference between an average first baseman and catcher is 25 runs or .048 points of wOBA per 600 plate appearances -- I love it when smart baseball people contact me out of the blue on Twitter. That's a significant gap.
While I believe that Santana could become an average defensive catcher, I don't expect him to be quite that good. The other thing to keep in mind is how much longer Montero's career could be than Santana's. Great catchers get remembered. But catchers wear down. Legendary corner fielders/designated hitters...never die?
I see Jesus Montero as a potential once-in-a-generation force on offense. And to me that gives Montero the edge over Carlos Santana, even though Santana will likely have more defensive value than him.
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