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Trading Miguel Montero

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Reports suggest the Diamondbacks may be shopping catcher Miguel Montero. What are the reasons, who might they trade with, and who could end up replacing him?

Hannah Foslien
Why?

The prospect of a Diamondbacks team without Montero would be a strange one, simply because he has been part of the desert fabric for so long. He has played nine consecutive seasons with Arizona, the most ever by any player [Luis Gonzalez had eight; Randy Johnson too, split over two stints] To put it into context, Daniel Hudson has the next-longest tenure: when Huddy joined the team on July 30, 2010, Miguel Montero was only about five weeks short of already having been in the majors for four years. Miggy's 906 games played is second all-time, to Gonzo, and is almost twice as many as the next current (Paul Goldschmidt's 462). It'd be like losing a minor appendage.

But, for a team that had the worst record in the majors last year, a catcher contract that will see Montero get paid $40 million through 2017, is likely an unnecessary luxury. When it was signed in May 2012, the team had just come the thickness of a FedEx envelope from making the National League Championship series. Montero, along with Justin Upton and Chris Young, was a major part of the engine that powered Arizona there, putting up 4.1 fWAR. Surely getting a total of 12 WAR over the 2013-2017 seasons would be a shoo-in?

Things started brightly enough, Montero being about half a win better in 2012, even as the team overall regressed to the .500 mark. But since Miggy's salary hit eight digits, things have gone off the rails: over the past two seasons, Montero has cost $20 million, but been worth a total of only 2.1 fWAR and 1.2 bWAR. It has mostly been the result of his bat going south: after consecutive seasons of over 120 OPS+ in 2011-12, Montero has hit only .237 during the last two years, with an OPS+ of 89. He's not getting cheaper. He's not getting younger. Since 2005, only one catcher, Carlos Ruiz, has put up eight bWAR from ages 31-33 - needed to justify the remaining cost.

However, the problem of using WAR to evaluate catchers is, much of what they do won't show up - the most obvious example is framing pitches, an area where Montero is generally regarded as excellent. Last year, as measured by StatCorner, no catcher was better than Miggy, his framing skills saving 24 runs, easily worth a couple of wins. That may seem high, but not when you think about the difference between starting an at-bat 1-0 and 0-1. Last year, after going to a 1-0 count, batters had a .792 OPS; after 0-1, it was two hundred points less. That's a huge swing, so framing that 1st pitch and turning a ball into a strike is a very worthwhile skill.

Who to?

The simple answer would appear to be, whoever doesn't get Russell Martin. Martin is the top free-agent catcher available on the market this winter, and he's likely to be able to write his own check, having put up 5.5 bWAR last season, at age 31 [I think he'll almost certainly join Ruiz in the 8 WAR club]. The Cubs, Pirates and Dodgers are the three teams most frequently mentioned in connection with Martin, and that means two of them are going to end up being disappointed. Given the drop-off from Martin is more of a BASE jump without a parachute, down to the likes of Nick Hundley and Geovanny Soto, there will be openings.

Even though Montero wasn't brilliant last season, he would still count as a significant upgrade for all three teams. By bWAR, the D-backs were 1.5 wins below average at the catcher position last year; however, even without any allowance for pitch framing, that's still better than both the Cubs (-1.6) and Dodgers (-2.7), while the Pirates (3.9) were there solely due to their possession of Martin. Financing shouldn't be an issue: Chicago are opening their wallets again, Los Angeles appear to have an eternal fount of money, and Pittsburgh has a huge amount of wiggle room, with a projected payroll for 2015 at this point of fractionally above $50 million.

Of course, trading Montero to the Pirates might make for an... interesting clubhouse atmosphere there, shall we say, given events between the two teams earlier this season. Our siblings at Bucs Dugout brought up the possibility last week, and the comments make for 125% of your weekly recommended intake of Butthurt. Which, of course, is a perfectly credible reason to hope it happens. In terms of return, our most obvious need is starting pitching: Jack Magruder speculated yesterday, "The D-backs could expect a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in a package for Montero, depending  on how much if any of his salary they pick up." I could live with that.

Replacing Montero

With Jordan Pacheco being outrighted off the 40-man roster the other day, that leaves Tuffy Gosewisch as the only catcher left there for the Diamondbacks. With all respect to Tuffy, there's a reason he made his MLB debut the same month he turned thirty - I was startled to realize he's only a month younger than Montero. It's quite possible Pacheco will be back in 2015, but after we picked him up on June 12, he played exactly zero innings behind the plate, being mostly used as a fill-in for Goldschmidt at 1B. It doesn't sound like the team had much confidence in him, but of course, 2015 will bring a new manager and new GM.

In terms of farm prospects, the name nearest the top of the heap is Peter O'Brien the slugger acquired from the Yankees for Martin Prado. He smacked a pair of home-runs in the Arizona Fall League yesterday afternoon, giving him a line of .276/.415/.553, with a solid K:BB ratio of 20:16 and a .968 OPS. Between here and his minor-league season, it's now 39 homers in 128 games for O'Brien, so his bat isn't an issue. The obvious bigger question is whether he can handle the defensive duties, and I'm not the only person getting a Wilin Rosario vibe from O'Brien. But he had only 76 games above High-A. Is that major-league ready?

If we do trade Montero - and that remains an "if" - then it wouldn't surprise me to see us go dumpster diving to pick up a warm body for duties behind the plate in 2015, as we give O'Brien a year to hone his skills with the glove beyond the "rusty butter-knife" level. While new management may be saying the right things about contending next year, if we see the departure of Montero, the likely downgrade at the position which would probably result, is likely an admission that there's a longer-term plan in mind for the Diamondbacks.