Montero, Reed, Trout headline top impact prospects at spring training
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- The kid wearing No. 63, the hitting prodigy who's been called the next Miguel Cabrera, steps up to the plate on a back field in the Mariners spring training complex. A big crowd has gathered for the Jesus Montero Show. Every day, the crowd seems to grow larger.
Scouts like to say that with many of the great ones, the sound of ball off the bat is different, unique. That's the case with Jesus Montero: You hear the greatness before you see it. When the 6-foot-3, 230-pound 22-year-old is bludgeoning baseballs over the fence, as he's doing this morning in front of the swooning fans, his BP cuts resonate like loud gunshots.
"The first time I saw him in the Futures Game a few years back, it was pretty instant that this kid was special," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said recently in camp. "A big guy with power, a really good swing, someone who plays a position where there's not a lot of offense -- all that stands out. I always liked the kid. I always wanted to get him."
It was during the winter meetings that Zduriencik called Yankees GM Brian Cashman with a question. "Is there any way I can get Montero?" he asked. A few days later Cashman came back with a reply: "Will you trade Michael Pineda?"
Recalls Zduriencik, who dealt Pineda for Montero on Jan. 14, in the boldest move of the offseason, "I never thought I'd trade Pineda. Never. Everyone knows that arms like his don't come along very often. But one of our big priorities was trying to come up with a bat somewhere -- it's no secret that we were offensively challenged last year. We looked at our options, we looked at big-name free agents, we looked at other free agents, outside of the big dogs, and finally there was a point I called Brian. What I wanted to do in this deal was get someone who would be with us for a long period of time -- and I think we got someone we thought would hit third or fourth for us for a number of years."
Montero, whom Cashman has called the best player he ever traded, is so talented that he immediately becomes the Mariners' biggest power threat. "Even in that ballpark in Seattle, I wouldn't be shocked if he hits 25 home runs this year," said a scout. The big question in camp is where Montero will play. The Yankees looked like they had given up on the idea of Montero as a catcher, but the Mariners -- who also have Miguel Olivo, John Jaso, and Adam Moore at the position -- are not ready to accept that Montero is an every-day DH.
"We expect him to be a catcher, just like we expect him to be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter," said Zduriencik. "He's going to get every opportunity to catch. Look, we're not going to throw him to the wolves. We're going to watch him here, and our guys are going to work with him every day."
Either way, Montero's time has come. Here are six other prospects ready to make an impact in 2012.
Who will be this year's Craig Kimbrel? The best bet is Reed, a 23-year-old right-hander who pitched in the shadow of Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State. Of the candidates vying to replace Sergio Santos as the White Sox closer, Reed is the most intriguing. A starter in college, Reed started touching the high 90s last year when the club moved him to the bullpen. Whether he wins the job over Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain could depend on the progress of his changeup, which he's been working on with pitching coach Don Cooper. "Being an Angels fan growing up, I always looked up to K-Rod and [Troy] Percival," he said. "I've always wanted to be a closer." He may soon get his chance.
The phenom many regard as the game's top prospect is competing for a job in a crowded outfield that also includes Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, Peter Bourjos, and Bobby Abreu. "Mike's in a great situation here because has a mature team around him, and teammates that have been through the wars can give him a lot of advice," said Angels GM Jerry Dipoto. "This is a great opportunity for him to come in and compete for a spot. There's a lot of competition here for opportunity, and I wouldn't go into it with any preconceived notions how things have to fit."
In short, despite the logjam in the Angels outfield, Trout could be a breakout camp away from earning significant playing time. "A lot of times with talented young players, you just have to get out of the way and let them play," said Dipoto. "We know Mike isn't your normal 20-year-old. We don't need to teach him how to play -- he knows how."
The consensus AL Rookie of the Year pick may very well be the best pitcher in one of the best rotations in baseball. "What he did in the playoffs last year, that was very, very impressive," said an AL executive, of Moore's dazzling start in Game One of the Division Series. "That poise is something you can't teach. And to do it against that Texas lineup -- impressive." The key for Moore last year was developing a changeup to complement his fastball and curve. The lefty has little left to prove, but don't be surprised if the Rays start him at Triple-A Durham to manage his workload.
Cincinnati's top prospect could put up 20-plus home runs right away in the launching pad that is the Great American Ball Park. Dusty Baker isn't quite ready to name him the team's starting catcher, but it would be a surprise if Mesoraco, who posted an .855 OPS last year in Triple-A, isn't in the lineup on opening day.
All eyes in Tigertown are on Prince Fielder, but the X-factor in the AL Central might be Jacob Turner, who is competing for a rotation spot and could become Detroit's secret weapon. The Tigers' top prospect is armed with a mid 90s fastball and a 12-6 curve, and has been working on a slider to add to his already potent repertoire.
Seattle could afford to trade Pineda because the organization is loaded with talented young arms like Hultzen, Taijaun Walker, and James Paxton. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Hultzen is the most polished of the three and has a chance to make the team as the fifth starter. "He's got the slider, he's got the really good changeup, the fastball is in the mid 90s at times," said Zduriencik, though he cautions, "As much as we like him, he's never thrown a pitch outside the Arizona Fall League." The GM added, "The unique thing about Walker, Paxton, and Hultzen is that they have the great arms but they also have the poise to be something special."