The inevitable finally happened. Jesus Montero got sent down to Tacoma to convert into a first baseman and designated hitter. Really, he's converting to anything but a catcher. Things might have turned out differently if Montero was hitting, but he wasn't, to say the least.
On one hand I get why the Mariners tried to make Montero work at catcher. He has more value if he sticks there. Quite a few players move off of the position for a pretty simple reason - it's really hard to catch. Raul Ibanez was once a catcher. So was current A's third baseman Josh Donaldson. Craig Biggio even started his career as a backstop before moving to second base. These aren't examples of players that toyed around with catching in little league, or even high school. They all logged significant innings as catchers in the minor leagues, and even a few in the majors.
Many players, even ones that go on to successful MLB careers, get moved off of catcher. Perhaps Montero turns out to be one of those folks. However, this really was the inevitable that finally happened, and the move was inevitable long before Montero's struggles this April and May. Montero's squat behind the plate became questionable the second the Mariners drafted Mike Zunino last June, and the whole exercise of working with Montero on his catching became a charade when Zunino announced his presence loudly, to the tune of an OPS over 1.000 in Everett AND Jackson. Zunino even caught the baseball behind the plate, like bona fide catchers tend to do.
Now Montero will try his hand at first base, which means if he is ever to earn regular playing time with the Mariners, he will displace Justin Smoak. The Mariners are now pitting disappointing prospect against disappointing prospect. Smoak has not fallen short of expectations quite like Montero has, because he is everything the Mariners had hoped for short of extra-base hits. Smoak's on-base percentage is higher than his slugging percentage as I type this post, which is troubling for a first baseman. I've seen some rumblings of Justin's "hot streak," and if this really is what Smoak looks like when he's hot, then the Mariners might as well trade him if someone sees an everyday first basemen in him at the moment.
It's easy to laugh at the Mariners right now and see Montero's demotion as a symbol of the organization's ineptitude. To some degree, it is, though again I stress that the real ineptitude was investing so much time in Montero after Zunino quickly established his status as a strong catching prospect. However, if the Mariners are going to get chastised, then every organization better take the same grief. The Rays, the chic organization of advanced analysis and brilliant moves, picked a prep catcher called Justin O'Conner in the first round of the draft in 2010. He has an OPS below .600 in low A ball right now. The Marlins picked a catcher called Kyle Skipworth 6th overall in 2008, and he is yet to post an OPS over .700 in AA, AAA, or his 4 at-bats in the majors. The Cubs selected Micah Gibbs, a successful catcher in the SEC (a powerhouse conference for baseball, to go with their death grip on football), in the third round in 2010. He never made it out of A-ball before being released.
Montero crushed pitching in the upper levels of the minors, had a brilliant month of slugging when he first came up with the Yankees, and was regarded as a legitimate MLB prospect by many outside the M's and Yankees organizations. The reason Montero gets attention as a failure is, paradoxically, because of his success.
The other reason is because the Mariners seem unable to produce any sort of prospects. Why would Rays fans moan over O'Conner with all the home grown pitching they have developed? The Marlins have guys like Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. Even the lowly Cubs have Starlin Castro, traded for Anthony Rizzo, and traded away at least a serviceable player like Tyler Colvin.
The real question isn't why Jesus Montero has struggled, or even why Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley have disappointed. Every MLB team has a long list of prospects that never worked out like they anticipated or hoped. However, if prospects are as unpredictable as the failures suggest, then teams should also have guys pan out, perhaps even better than expected or in surprising ways. These are the players that offset the disappointments, and they pop up enough in other organizations to keep fans from noticing prospect disappointments too much.
Where are those players for the Mariners? Tom Wilhelmsen counts I suppose, but he is more of a reclamation project. Brandon Maurer might turn out to be a pleasant surprise from a late draft slot some day if/when he matures. Stefen Romero could be an unexpected hitter from a mid-round draft slot if he turns out to be more than a one-year wonder (same goes for Vinnie Catricala). Doug Fister would have been one of those nice surprises if he wasn't traded away. Kyle Seager looks like he has become a better player than most expected.
Patience is a virtue, and it needs to be exercised with the Mariners, even at this point where it seems like the sky is falling. Perhaps Montero's demotion is the symbolic collapse of the Zduriencik regime, but all the prospects in AA and AAA right now could re-write the narrative in the near future. Somebody should research the success rates of players who do well in AA and AAA. It would be stunning, if not unprecedented, if the Mariners can't develop several useful MLB players out of their current cohort in AA and AAA. Failures are inevitable, but so are successes...or at least they should be.
It's human nature to overreact to recent results. Right now it feels like all high-level M's prospects become busts. I'm a bitter and disappointed M's fan, but I'm also willing to fight for a longer-term perspective, if for no other reason because that's where optimism lies. The Mariners don't need to get lucky to improve, they just need to have the prospects in their farm system pan out like everyone else's. That doesn't mean they all succeed, but it does mean that some of them do.