Busted Prospect Smackdown: Jesus Montero vs. Justin Smoak

suck five! - Jim McIsaac

Lloyd McClendon says that Justin Smoak is his first baseman. Jack Zduriencik has "zero expectations" for Jesus Montero. Maybe it should be the other way around.

The other day something funny occurred to me: this spring, for the second time in his tenure as Mariners GM, Jack Zduriencik has been presented with the same choice. Justin Smoak, or Jesus Montero?

Of course, this time around the choice is way more depressing. And no one's going to have to give up Cliff Lee. (Don't think about that one too hard, or you'll remember that time that the Mariners traded Michael Pineda and Cliff Lee for Jesus Montero and Justin Smo - dammit, too late.) Also, judging by the words coming out of Jack and Lloyd McClendon's mouths, the decision was made before camp even started.

But what if it weren't? Let's do a little thought experiment. Say that 24 of the 25 slots on the roster are filled up, and the Mariners have to choose between giving a job to Justin Smoak and giving a job to Jesus Montero. Which one should they pick?

For the sake of our little game, we'll say the opening day roster of position players looks like this:

Position Name
C Zunino
1B Morrison
2B Cano
3B Seager
SS Miller
LF Ackley
CF Almonte
RF Saunders
DH Hart
Bench C Buck
Bench IF Bloomquist
Bench OF Romero? I dunno

So the Mariners have one roster spot left, and two guys to choose between. Here's where things get interesting, though: Montero and Smoak would have vastly different roles on the roster because of the context of the team's other 1B/DHes. Logan Morrison should probably be platooned, and Corey Hart probably can't really play every day. But you can't platoon Justin Smoak with LoMo, since their problems vLHP are roughly equivalent, so putting him on the roster would bump Hart to the outfield vs. RHP and thus relegate one of the other three starting outfielders to the bench. On the other hand, the right-handed Montero fits perfectly into a three-to-make-two with Morrison and Hart at 1B/DH, but would cause the fourth outfielder to get more playing time.

These, then, are the two playing time division scenarios.

Case 1 (Smoak):

Position vL PA vR PA
DH Hart 200 Morrison 400
1B Smoak 200 Smoak 400
RF Saunders 200 Hart (+Saunders) 400

Case 2 (Montero):

Position vL PA vR PA
DH Montero 200 Hart (+Montero) 400
1B Hart 200 Morrison 200
RF Saunders 200 Saunders (+Romero) 400

I'm assuming Corey Hart isn't going to make it to 600 PA because of his knees, which is probably fair. I'm also assuming that Michael Saunders is the outfielder in danger of losing playing time, because that's sure what it sounds like these days. Grr. Anyways, Hart's fragility means that Montero would see some time vs. RHP were he to make the roster. Similarly, Saunders would occasionally get to hit against RHP if Smoak made it. In the scenario where Ackley/Saunders/Almonte is the full-time starting outfield, I assume a fourth guy like Stefen Romero would get a couple hundred extra PA.

This is all interesting, but it's not super informative. Let's look at a wOBA breakdown, to see what kind of offense the team would get out of these cases. (For methodology on generating PA vs. particular handednesses, check out this link. I used Fangraphs' Steamer/ZiPS projections and then regressed career platoon splits. The switch-hitting Smoak was regressed very gently.)

Case 1 (Smoak):

Position vL wOBA vR wOBA
DH Hart .354 Morrison .353
1B Smoak .294 Smoak .351
RF Saunders .284 Hart (+Saunders) .301

Multiply out the PA and that's a .353 wOBA from the DH slot, Smoak's projected .323 wOBA at 1B, and a .295 wOBA in right, for an average .324 wOBA.

Case 2 (Montero):

Position vL wOBA vR wOBA
DH Montero .341 Hart (+Montero) .301
1B Hart .354 Morrison .353
RF Saunders (+Romero) .284 Saunders .339

Multiply out the PA and that's a .314 wOBA from the DH slot, a .353 wOBA at 1B, and Saunders' projected .312 wOBA in right, for an average .326 wOBA.

Essentially, when it comes to hitting, it's a wash. Even though Smoak is projected to be a better overall hitter than Montero, the fact that the Mariners don't have anyone good to platoon with Morrison means that by committing to Smoak they'd be committing to a lot of unfortunate lefty-on-lefty matchups. Montero's worse hitting is made up for by the fact that he gets an extra lefty out of the lineup vs. LHP.

The big difference, though, is on defense. In the first scenario the Mariners would be playing Corey Hart in the outfield, which is both dangerous for his knees and defensively suboptimal. In the second scenario, they'd get to let Michael Saunders run around instead, which would probably save 5 or more runs - and some DL time - over the course of a season. Also, the fourth outfielder could spot Saunders vLHP from time to time, probably providing superior offensive production. Smoak may be a better defensive first baseman than Morrison, but it's not enough to make up for the massive liability that is Post-Surgery Corey Hart, Right Fielder.

After having a look at these scenarios, it's pretty flipping obvious why the team is interested in Dayan Viciedo. Corey Hart probably can't play 162 games, and Logan Morrison shouldn't face lefties very often, but none of the team's outfielders can split time with them because most of it would be vLHP. The obvious solution is to add a right-handed masher and turn the Hart/Morrison/Smoak mess into a Hart/Morrison/New Guy three-to-make-two at 1B/DH. Seems simple... except the only right-handed masher in the organization is Jesus Montero, by all accounts a lazy and entitled steroid user.

In the real world, of course, no one's talking about kicking Justin Smoak off the roster. But you may notice from my platoon regressions that he and Morrison project almost exactly the same. And while I'm pretty sure Morrison's a little bit better, I'm also pretty sure he has an option remaining. He's probably not far ahead of Jesus Montero in the "manager's pet" competition, either. I'm just saying: it'd probably make the team better. Not "cut Justin Smoak" better, but better. And isn't that the aim?

Look, there's no way Jesus Montero is going to make the Opening Day roster. He's done too much wrong; Jack and Lloyd have said too much against him. But if all the Mariners cared about were performance - and not narratives, like the eating thing, or the steroids thing, or the lazy thing - well, there's certainly a case to be made.

...Let me just go file this one next to "bring back Joe Saunders".

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