Should the Diamondbacks have Traded Miguel Montero?

I was sitting in Business Stats, effectively bored out of my mind and thinking of things completely unrelated to the course when my mind drifted once again to the catching overload that the Diamondbacks currently have in the upper levels of the system and the major leagues. It has been well-documented that we've been shopping Chris Snyder, and actually almost managed to pull off a deal to send him to Toronto. In what will be amongst the greatest what-ifs of the season, and even of the Opening Day roster, we were a couple of medical tests away from sending Snyder to Toronto for 1B Lyle Overbay. Had this happened, we'd have effectively the same roster we have right now sans Snyder, with Overbay replacing Adam LaRoche as left-handed 1B du jour in the middle of our order, and another roster spot available to keep John Hester as our backup. The lineup would be extremely similar in offensive capability, and we would not have had to stretch our budget as much as we did.

But, those medicals scared the Blue Jays away, and with LaRoche on-board and the Jays bound for likely suckitude with Roy Halladay out the door, it's not going to be a trade that will be re-discussed near the deadline. So now I pose this question: when the Snyder-to-Toronto deal fell apart and it was clear that the chances of trading Snyder in the off-season was slim-to-none, should we have begun shopping Miguel Montero? After all, Montero has been courted before, most notably by the Red Sox, so it wouldn't have come completely out of left field. Both arguments for making a deal and against making a deal, as well as an overall rundown of the situation, following the break.

The Argument for Trading Montero:

I first came up with this idea thinking about how many followers of the DBacks have shown hesitance in continuing to shop Snyder when his trade value is so low and all we're likely to get is some minimal salary relief, if that. I then thought "if we don't want to trade Snyder after a bad, injury-plagued year, why not trade Montero now after a huge breakout year, since there is a legitimate chance of regression?" And Spring Training numbers back up this fear. Montero is currently sporting an awful line of .121/.293/.182 in ST. If his production offensively significantly declines from last year's breakout, the replacement value of extra starts from Snyder and a few from Hester, plus the bounty we could have gotten for Montero could easily be worth more than what Montero gives us.

Also, consider the catching market this off-season. Jason Kendall received two-years and $4M from the Royals. Ivan Rodriguez received two-years and $6M from the Nationals. Brian Schneider got two-years and $2.75M from Philadelphia. Gregg Zaun is getting $2.15M on a one-year deal he just signed with the Brewers. Bengie Molina... for the sake of the people of the Bay Area, we'll not go there. The only deal for a free-agent catcher this off-season where you can say that the team actually has a good chance of getting more than they paid for is Toronto's one-year, $2M inking of Travis Buck. But Montero? He'll be making $2M this year after avoiding arbitration in his first year of eligibility. He is under control through 2012. And if he can maintain his offensive production from the second half of last season through this season, he's a top-5 catcher. The type of value Montero provides is worth a lot, especially when you take into account the absolutely massive premium that is being placed on catchers in the current market. If we could have pried away a top-tier, major league-ready pitching prospect plus some lower-level guys with upside for Montero (is this too much to ask for? I don't think so), it would have solidified our biggest weakness for 2010 and possibly improved the outlook for the future. Imagine a 2014 rotation of Dan Haren, Jarrod Parker, Top Pitching Prospect Du Jour, Ian Kennedy, and Current Mid-Level DBacks Prospect / Back-End Free Agent Du Jour. Yes, please.

Plus, it's not like dealing Montero leaves the cupboards bare for the DBacks. Not many teams have an asset like John Hester - a major-league ready, legitimate backup catcher with one September on his service clock making minimum dollars for the foreseeable future. The guy was a AAA-All Star in 2009, due to his bat, and that is after having a career reputation as a defensive-oriented catcher. The guy has literally nothing left to prove by being in AAA. With Snyder having some health concerns, Hester would have to start his fair share of games. But which would you take - choosing one starter as a stop-gap for Webb and having a Snyder/Hester platoon at catcher, or having Rodrigo Lopez in the rotation for the entire season (which looks to be the case as of now, as he's been the most impressive of the fifth-starter candidates) and choosing another guy to be a stop-gap for Webb with a Montero/Snyder platoon and Hester in AAA? It's certainly a tough call.

The Argument for Keeping Montero:

Montero put up a 3.1 WAR last year, and while CHONE is down on him, projecting just a 2.2 WAR for 2010, who is CHONE not down on? On the other hand, Fans has Montero pegged for a 3.8 WAR. That's the equivalent of $17.3M in salary. I don't think that's unobtainable, but a lot of things are going to have to go right for Montero, and they're going to have to start going right quickly. Aggregate that over the next three years, factor in some slight improvements as he develops, and you're going to have to make sure you get $50M (or more) in value back over the next three years for Montero in any deal. Distributing those numbers equally over the three years and valuing it back to the present (with an arbitrary $6% discount rate and placing the value of a year's performance at the start of that year), that's still about $47.2M in present-day value. Discount the salary Montero is likely to make through arbitration over the next two years plus the $2M salary this year, and you'll subtract around $17M (my basis for this - $2M in '10, with pretty hefty raises to $5M in '11 and $10M in '12 on the basis of his position), and you're left with about $30M in WAR value. Montero was good last year, but was he worth that much on the trade market? According to Victor Wang at The Hardball Times, that's the value of two top-10 pitching prospects. That would definitely fix our rotation problems, but since we're obviously not getting that kind of bounty, why trade Montero for less than what many expect his value to be?

Now, to address a pair of concerns from the previous section. Montero's poor Spring Training performance may perhaps be explained mostly by bad luck. On balls in play, Montero is hitting 4-27 (.148), and he boasts a K/BB ratio of 6/7. Also in the previous section, I mentioned that Snyder would likely be limited in starts due to his health concerns. But if we trade Montero, what happens to us if Snyder goes completely out-of-commission for an extended period of time because of his back? Hester is a good backup, but is he a starter-quality catcher on a team with playoff aspirations? Could we really depend on Konrad Schmidt, who, despite having collected a single and two doubles in his five Spring Training at-bats, has played all of five games above A-ball in his career to be the backup at the major-league level? Would we turn to free-agent non-roster invitee castoff Carlos Corporan? These are some absolutely huge risks to take by trading a steady, starting-caliber catcher with no history of injury on a team that hopes to contend, especially a team already loaded with some pretty significant risks.

The Overall Rundown:

The way I see it, the possibility of trading Montero is the epitome of high-risk, high-reward. The thing is, the Diamondbacks already have a ton of risk embedded within this team. Between Brandon Webb, the back end of the rotation, and the bullpen, we need a few things to work out in our favor. So trading Montero would have simply added another risk, and that's if there even was a team that would have been able to give us sufficient value for Montero and simultaneously been enough in contention over the next couple of years to consider sacrificing part of their future to add Montero.

Looking ahead now, it doesn't really make sense to trade Montero, say, next summer. Why? Well, because his value will have significantly diminished. He will have one fewer year of control, and the most cost-effective year of control at that. So the replacement value will have significantly diminished to the point where even getting a single top-10 pitching prospect would be somewhere close to equivalent value for Montero, and trading a premium catcher with two years of control for one prospect probably wouldn't be a move the organization would be looking to make unless they were looking to completely dismantle the squad and rebuild for 2012-2014 (which may actually be a possibility, now that I think about it...). So while this debate is mostly moot for now, it's simply something that interested me. After all, there are still ten days during which I have to come up with baseball topics to discuss before the games finally start. : )