Unusual Trade Nets Mariners “The Best Power-Hitting Prospect in Baseball”

New Mariner Jesus Montero

The Mariners have traded stellar young pitcher Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees for stellar young hitter Jesus Montero in a rare exchange of talented contemporaries.

When baseball teams exchange good players, they almost always exchange young players of promise for talented veterans–like when the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee in December 2009, or exchange talented veterans for young players of promise–like when the Mariners traded away Cliff Lee in July 2010.

Players of similar ages sometimes get traded for each other, but usually these players are mediocrities, and the swaps are intended to provide depth at a weak position–like when the Mariners traded infielder Mike Morse for outfielder Ryan Langerhans in June 2009. (Unfortunately for the M’s, Morse turned out to be slightly north of mediocre, Langerhans decidedly south.)

Trades of talented players of similar ages, young or old, are much, much rarer. The most notable recent example is the December 2007 trade that sent OF Josh Hamilton to the Rangers for P Edinson Volquez. That trade has worked out best for the Rangers, who Hamilton has led to consecutive American League titles–though in 2009 the trade was looking like a disappointing wash for both clubs.

Power-hitting catcher Montero addresses the team’s greatest deficiency–their lack of hitting talent. “Deficiency” and “lack” probably aren’t strong enough words. The Mariners have delivered two of the worst offensive performances in modern baseball history each of the past two seasons; Jack Zduriencik’s speed-heavy, power-light offensive strategy has been a disaster. Montero posted a stellar .996 OPS in a limited stint with the Yankees in September; his minor league numbers suggest that this was not an aberration.

Trading talented Pineda “seemed crazy” as recently as last June. He throws harder than any pitcher in baseball, and he throws strikes, a rare skill for a pitcher who’s just 22. His debut as a Mariner was the most–hell, the only–anticipated game of the season.

Anyone who calls this trade “good” or “bad” before either player has even tried on his new team’s uniform is merely offering opinion. With two players this young, and this skilled, we may need a decade to decide whether the Mariners or Yankees got the best of the deal.

My opinion, if you asked for it, would be that the Mariners made a good decision. Their offense is weak, and there have no one remotely approaching Montero’s talent in the minor league system. If Montero really is “the best power-hitting prospect in baseball,” as Marc Carig of the Star-Ledger wrote today (the much-respected magazine Baseball America ranked Montero #3 in its 100 best prospects of 2011 list), or even if he’s arguably the best power-hitting prospect in baseball, this is, in my mind, a good risk.