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Originally published January 14, 2012 at 7:11 PM | Page modified January 15, 2012 at 1:40 PM

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Everyone seems to agree, new Mariner Montero can really hit

The Mariners are banking there's truth behind the hyperbole that has followed Jesus Montero since the Yankees signed him out of Venezuela in 2006 at age 16.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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This past December at the winter meetings in Dallas, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman marveled over the just-breaking news that Albert Pujols was signing with the Angels for $254 million.

He told New York reporters, "I don't know him (Pujols) personally, but I see what he does with that bat, and it's Montero-like."

Cashman was being playful (mostly), but Seattle is banking there's truth behind the hyperbole that has followed Jesus Montero since the Yankees signed him out of Venezuela in 2006 at age 16.

From virtually the day he arrived in the states, Montero has been heralded as The Next Big Thing, the latest candidate to join the Yankees' seemingly endless succession of marquee talent.

Pujols is far from the only superstar to whom Montero has been regularly compared — even though he has played just 18 games in the major leagues, all of them coming last September.

Baseball America editor Jim Callis has ranked him ahead of the much-hyped Bryce Harper as a hitting prospect. When the Yankees gave him a $1.6 million bonus to sign as a teenager, scouts said he possessed the strength of Bo Jackson. Yankees manager Joe Girardi took a gander at Montero's opposite-field power in spring training and said the kid reminded him of "a young Alex."

You can guess which Alex he was talking about. A perusal of articles on Montero also found comparisons to Miguel Cabrera, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Mike Piazza, Robinson Cano, Edgar Martinez and Joe Mauer.

Pretty heady stuff, and now the Mariners, not the Yankees, are the ones poised to reap the benefits of Montero's talent as he nears the point of major-league readiness. They acquired the slugging catcher, now 22, in a trade Friday that resulted in All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda heading to the Yankees. The deal won't become official until physicals are completed.

Optimally, from the Mariners' standpoint, Montero will fulfill the prediction of Baseball America's editor in chief, John Manuel, who said Saturday, "For me, he's the No. 3 or 4 prospect in the whole game. He's a future star, and the kind of guy you build a franchise around, in my mind.

"He has a chance to be the Mariners' best hitter for the next decade."

Yet Montero still has to prove that he can achieve the heights predicted of him. There are still questions associated with Montero that have some Mariner fans questioning why they gave up a potential ace in Pineda to get him.

The most hotly debated issue is whether Montero has the defensive tools to catch in the major leagues. If he can do that, and put up elite power numbers in the process, then the Mariners have unearthed a singular talent.

If Montero has to move to first base, designated hitter, or even, as some have speculated, a corner outfield position, then his value is lessened — though obviously still considerable if he develops into a perennial 30-homer, 100-RBI man.

Keith Law, an ESPN analyst who formerly worked in the Toronto Blue Jays' front office, is in the school that believes Montero will never make it as a catcher.

"I don't think he has any of the things you're looking for as a catcher, except arm strength," he said. "But it takes him so long to throw, that doesn't play, either. If you can't control the running game, you can't catch. Piazza was dogged by that his whole career, and he's a better receiving catcher than Montero."

It should be noted Law is a big-time Montero supporter even if he never catches, because he believes his offensive potential is so high.

"It took me a long time to come around on this, but he's such a good hitter, it's really not going to matter," Law said. "He's going to hit for average. He has great bat speed, and he's so strong that, even though he hits off his front foot like Frank Thomas, he's going to hit for power, too."

Even, Law believes, at Safeco Field, which has been a graveyard for right-handed sluggers. Montero, however, has great opposite-field power, exemplified by the game in September against Baltimore in which he hit two homers to right field at Yankee Stadium.

"If that power doesn't play at Safeco, no one's will," Law said.

The Yankees steadfastly maintained the belief that Montero could develop into a passable defensive catcher, to the extent that they never experimented with him at another position. They likened his progress to Jorge Posada, who overcame early defensive questions to forge a brilliant 17-year-career.

Cashman told the Seattle Times last spring, "We thought Posada was special. We think Montero is special. We were right on Posada, and I think we'll be right on Montero. But Posada transferred that potential into reality. Montero is still doing that."

Manuel, meanwhile, sees Montero as possibly having a catching career in the Piazza mode (by far the most common comparison). He noted that Montero had just one error last year and led the International League catchers in fielding percentage.

"He's kind of like a shortstop who doesn't make a lot of plays, but makes the plays he gets to," he said. "I don't think he'd embarrass himself defensively if you stick him at catcher. If you stick him there 120 times, his weaknesses might be exposed. But I don't see any reason he can't catch 40 to 60 times a year.

"There's a small chance this guy does have a Mike Piazza career — a bad defender, but it doesn't matter, because he was the best offensive catcher of his time. There's a chance this guy could be that."

Butch Wynegar, a former major-league catcher who has worked extensively with Montero as a Yankees instructor, dismisses the comparison to Piazza.

"Monty is not Mike Piazza," he told the New York Post last spring. "He is not going to be a hitter-only as a catcher. He is going to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues who can handle the catching. I truly believe that."

Here's what Manuel is adamant about, just like most everyone who has seen him with a bat: "Montero can really flat-out hit. I've never had one person tell me he can't hit."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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