Buster Olney: Miguel Montero

The top 10 catchers in MLB 

November, 16, 2014
Bumgarner and PoseyJohn Rieger/USA TODAY SportsIn Buster Posey's five seasons as the Giants' backstop, they've won three World Series titles.
In those handful of moments when the New York Yankees talked about an austerity drive a couple of years ago, when Hal Steinbrenner spoke of getting under the salary cap, they decided to let Russell Martin walk away as a free agent -- and he was snapped up by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In December 2013, as the Yankees pared down a roster flush with catching, they decided to trade Chris Stewart, and the Pirates grabbed him to be Martin’s backup.

Last week, as Pittsburgh looked to build a safety net in case Martin walks away as a free agent, the Pirates turned to the Yankees again, swapping veteran reliever Justin Wilson for Francisco Cervelli.

It’s not a coincidence that there has been a Yankees-Pirates catching pipeline in place, because both teams apparently place the same high priority on pitch-framing, a skill that Martin, Stewart and Cervelli all possess, and a skill that is being increasingly valued by teams as they look for the smallest (and largest) advantages. The days when teams are content with slapping shin guards and a mask on a slugger and living with defensive deficiencies are just about over.

With that as the context for how catchers are evaluated in 2014, here’s the first in a series of rankings of the top 10 players at each position, based on their overall skills on both offense and defense. The rankings are crafted with input from some general managers and other evaluators in the sport.

The top 10 catchers:

1. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

For every evaluator who prefers Posey, there’s another who would rather take Yadier Molina. Some prefer Molina’s defense, his ability to shut down a running game; others like Posey, because he has been the most consistently excellent hitter when compared to others at this position. He has a career OPS of .861, a neighborhood that Molina has achieved in only one season: 2012, when he had an .874 OPS.

Molina, a future Hall of Famer, is universally regarded as the better defensive player. But Posey’s defense is good, and his pitchers say it's improving in how he calls games and how he handles situations.

The 30 Linchpin Players of 2014 

January, 19, 2014
Starlin Castro, Xander Bogaerts, and Victor MartinezGetty ImagesStarlin Castro, Xander Bogaerts and Victor Martinez will have to play key roles for their teams in 2014.
The Cardinals would love for a strong season from Matt Adams, but you know what? If he requires more time to settle in as a regular, they’ve got enough other parts to win without a big contribution from the first baseman. The same could be said for Ryan Zimmerman; the Nationals don’t have to have a big season from him, and the Giants probably aren’t banking on a Cy Young-caliber season from Tim Lincecum.

But beyond the obvious stars, like a Miguel Cabrera, Adam Wainwright or Mike Trout, each of the 30 teams has a player whose performance will be most pivotal.

Presenting: The linchpin players of 2014:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Miguel Montero. They greatly value him, and they’re paying him to be a key part of their lineup. When he didn’t hit last season, it really, really hurt; he must be an effective complement to Paul Goldschmidt.

Atlanta Braves: Justin Upton. The Braves could

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A scout who saw Yasiel Puig in spring training provided this report in March:

He plays hard -- really, really hard.

He’s got big-time power, to all fields.

He can run like crazy.

He’s got a great arm.

And, the scout said, with zero emotion, "Other players are going to hate him."

Every game is filled with small gestures of acknowledgment and respect between brothers of the game. Before batting practice, rival players wave to each other across the field. There are handshakes and hugs among players wearing different uniforms. When Derek Jeter walks to the plate today for his first at-bat of the season, he will nod at the home plate umpire and likely tap the catcher on the shin guard with his bat. If he gets a hit, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer probably will congratulate him and welcome him back.

Before the first pitch of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Jeter stepped into the batter’s box and looked out at the mound at Curt Schilling, and the two men greeted each other with their eyes, like two boxers tapping gloves before the start of a heavyweight fight.

It’s part of the game and has been for a lot longer than even old-timers like to admit.

What the scout saw in Puig in spring training was someone who played as if he were the only person on the field. Without the niceties and with the body language that makes it clear that he believes he is the best player on the field and everybody else should get the heck out of the way. And it’s working for him. He’s hitting .394 and has been a driving force for the Dodgers in their push from the bottom of the National League West.

Whether you like this or hate it, this is the way he is. This is how he goes about his business, and as the scout predicted, he’s rubbing other players the wrong way -- not only on other teams but also in his own clubhouse.

The Diamondbacks’ Miguel Montero became one of the first players to put voice to it before Wednesday’s game. From Tyler Emerick’s story:
"If he's my teammate, I probably try to teach him how to behave in the big leagues," Montero said. "He's creating a bad reputation around the league, and it's unfortunate because the talent that he has is to be one of the greatest players in the big leagues.

"Right now, I'm not going to say he's the best because he hasn't proved anything yet. Does he have talent? Of course. Does he have the tools? Of course. He's got so much talent, it'd be really bad if he wasted it doing the stupid things that he's doing. You have to respect to earn respect. If you don't respect anybody, you aren't going to earn respect."

Even though Puig has been with the Dodgers for just over a month, the D-backs already have a lengthy history with the 22-year-old. On June 11, Ian Kennedy hit Puig with a pitch in the nose in a game that saw two bench-clearing incidents resulting in eight suspensions. Puig was fined for his role, but he wasn't given a ban, something that irked D-backs players who said he punched former Arizona first baseman Eric Hinske in the back of the head.

Then on Tuesday, Puig was thrown out easily at the plate in the fifth inning but not before he collided with Montero and then stared down the catcher as he walked back to the dugout. Replays showed Montero waving his finger at the rookie, a la former NBA big man Dikembe Mutombo.

"I don't blame him running me over, it's part of the game," Montero said. "The only thing I really don't appreciate is why you have to look back at me. I really don't appreciate that."

Luis Gonzalez wasn’t thrilled with Puig either, after an exchange with him.

How other players feel about him might be irrelevant in the end. Barry Bonds was disliked by almost all his teammates and many opposing players because they found him to be completely self-centered.

In time, we’ll know if any of this perception affects Puig in any way.

He has earned the role of villain, writes Bill Plaschke.

The Diamondbacks bullpen unraveled, Hanley Ramirez came up big again, and the Dodgers drew to within 1½ games of first place.

Around the league

Travis Hafner got hurt hitting against a pitching machine, Brett Gardner got hurt during Wednesday’s game, and now Derek Jeter is on the way back. Jeter said he felt ready.

His return comes with all the necessary qualifiers: He’s 39 years old; he’s not a power hitter; he’s coming back from a significant injury.

But it’s worth remembering that he led the majors in hits last season, and quite simply, he’s better -- even in a diminished state -- than what the Yankees have been playing with.

Joe DiMaggio once had a midseason return from injury that will go down as one of the greatest of all time, as Mike Vaccaro writes.

• Longtime columnist Patrick Reusse thinks the Twins should fire Ron Gardenhire to save him from the misery of this season. From his column:
It’s time to go, Gardy, for no real reason, other than it’s time to go.

This is remindful of Flip Saunders’ long run as coach of the Timberwolves, except he was luckier than you. Flip was fired on Feb. 12, 2005, late in his 10th season, when a team with substantial expectations had quit playing for him.

Flip got to leave rather than stick around to coach through several more years of misery.

Think how great it would’ve been, Gardy, if the Twins had decided to have you take the fall for lost expectations in, say, August 2011, and you didn’t have to stick around to be suffocated in the ensuing misery.

A sizable portion of the local sporting public likes to bring up early postseason exits to further criticize the Gardenhire legacy. From here, it’s identical to Saunders’ coaching legacy with the Wolves.

Saunders went 0-7 in playoff series against superior teams from 1997 through 2003, then went 2-0 against inferior teams in 2004 before losing to the superior Lakers.

The Twins from 2002 through 2010 won one series against a superior team (Oakland in 2002), lost one to an inferior team (Oakland in 2006), and lost five other series to superior teams.

Six division titles, seven runs to the finish, in nine years was outstanding stuff and improbable consistency from a manager.

But this isn’t the same standard as when operating in the Metrodome was dirt cheap, and the Twins became an afterthought for owner Carl Pohlad, and Tom Kelly was basically bulletproof through his long stretch of having no chance.

The Twins lost again Wednesday night, on a walk-off.

Chris Carpenter is making strong progress in his rehab.

• As we waited for the start of the Pirates’ delayed game Wednesday, Curt Schilling mentioned that he thought Francisco Liriano was back -- because of his power stuff and the difference in velocity between his fastball and off-speed pitches. Liriano and the Pirates then ended their losing streak with a shutout of the Athletics.

• The Giants now have as many wins as the Mets and Cubs after getting swept in their own park this week. Matt Cain had the shortest start of his career Wednesday. The only thing really keeping them in the division race is the fact that no team has run away in the NL West -- but the Dodgers have the look of a team that could.

The Giants have lost 14 of 16 and have fallen from a second-place tie to the NL West cellar. Don't blame Buster Posey, though; he's hitting .339 in the stretch, while his teammates are hitting .192.

• As the Mets manage Matt Harvey’s innings, they are making an exception for the All-Star Game, writes Andrew Keh.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Gene Collier thinks the Pirates need to go out and get a bat.

2. The Phillies need to be realistic, writes Bob Ford.

Dings and dents

1. Jim Leyland doesn’t think Miguel Cabrera’s back issues are lingering.

2. Ryan Mattheus is well ahead of schedule.

3. The injured Reds are hanging in there.

4. Josh Beckett had a rib removed.

Wednesday’s games

1. Zack Wheeler was "the man" against his former team.

2. The Nationals put together a home run barrage.

3. The Red Sox put together a textbook rout, as Tim Britton writes.

AL East

Andrew Bailey threw great the other night, throwing a cutter.

• The Orioles got a huge boost with the return of Wei-Yin Chen.

AL Central

• The Tigers’ offense broke out.

• The Tigers have two relievers they can rely on, writes Tony Paul.

AL West

• Sonny Gray made his major league debut.

NL East

Taylor Jordan is concerned about possibly tipping his pitches, writes Amanda Comak.

NL Central

Shelby Miller is learning how to hang in there.

NL West

• Arizona GM Kevin Towers has regained his voice.

Other stuff

• With all the legal wrangling to come, the Biogenesis suspensions may not be served until 2014, writes Ron Blum.

• Major League Baseball may look into whether Alex Rodriguez has been impeding the Biogenesis investigation.

John Rocker says PEDs made for a better game.

• Pirates announcer Greg Brown is living the dream.

The police report on the Chris Perez bust came out.

• There is really sad news about Darren Daulton.

And today will be better than yesterday.