M’s early winner in Montero-Pineda deal

The debate isn’t over. It may persist for years, as long as Jesus Montero is a Mariner and Michael Pineda a Yankee.

But the early returns are in. The Mariners are winning the trade.

The statement is cold but true. Montero is playing. Pineda is not. Advantage: Seattle.

Pineda’s immediate future is worrisome indeed. He reportedly will undergo surgery next week to repair a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder, with the recovery time estimated at one full year.

While the Yankees endured a restless week, Montero went 2-for-5 in Seattle’s 7-4 victory over Detroit on Tuesday night. He drove in a run with a first-inning single. Later, he sat on a 2-0 fastball from Max Scherzer and sent a sizzling liner to the left side. It popped into the glove of one man to whom Montero has been compared: Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

“We’ve been following him for three, four years,” said Cabrera, a fellow Venezuelan. “He’s one of the best prospects to come from Venezuela. We know he can be a superstar someday.”

Told that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had likened Montero to a younger version of himself, Cabrera replied, “I wish I had that swing when I was 21. He’s going to be good, man. He’s going to be great. This guy’s got a chance to be a superstar in the big leagues.”

He’s actually 22. No matter. The point stands: Montero is batting cleanup for a major league team, while Americans his age are prepping for final exams.

“With that swing?” Cabrera continued, pausing to let out an admiring Hoo! with a subtle shake of his head. “He’s mature at that age. He looks to handle every pitch. He makes adjustments. That’s amazing to me. That’s something I didn’t have in the past. He already has it.”

Some context: Cabrera debuted in the majors at 20. He has collected 997 RBI — and is not yet 30 years old.

If we are to believe Cabrera’s assessment of Montero — and he is something of an authority on hitting — then perhaps Montero is on his way to a 1,000-RBI career. That would be monumental for the run-starved Mariners. The franchise has had but two 1,000-RBI men in its history. You may have heard of them: Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr.

Now for some perspective: Montero is far from a finished product, less than one month into what will be his first full season in the big leagues. His inexperience was evident in Tuesday’s sixth inning. He popped out on the first pitch from Detroit’s Collin Balester, after the reliever, struggling with his command, went to three-ball counts on the three previous hitters.

Montero is hitting .254, with two home runs and an OPS of .643. The numbers are not great. But at least he has them. Pineda’s New York innings odometer is stuck at “0” and likely will remain there for the foreseeable future.

Pineda has ability (he was an All-Star last year) and upside (he is 23). But there is zero chance the Yankees would have traded Montero if they knew Pineda would come down with a bum shoulder. Pineda went 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA in 10 starts after the All-Star break last year. Did the Mariners have reason to suspect he was a candidate to break down?

“The first half, he was unbelievable,” Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo said. “The second half, he still had (good) velocity on his fastball. His breaking ball was good. People say he lost velocity. I don’t know if that’s true or not. When he was here, he looked good.”

Montero isn’t concerned about the scorecard of January’s blockbuster that sent Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Pineda and pitching prospect Jose Campos, who is off to an impressive start with the Yankees’ low Class-A affiliate in Charleston, SC.

In fact, when I mentioned Pineda’s shoulder examination to Montero, he said, “I haven’t heard anything about that. I’m just trying to be healthy and help this team, every time they give me an opportunity.”

Seattle manager Eric Wedge has made it clear — with his lineup card, as much as his words — that Montero will play. A lot. He has appeared in 16 of the team’s 18 games. Only three Mariners have more official at-bats. “It’s a good trade for us,” observed Noesi, 1-2 with a 9.49 ERA in three starts. “If we were with the Yankees right now, we’d be at Triple-A.”

Montero’s work behind the plate has been maligned by scouts over the years. He has started 12 games at designated hitter so far this season, four at catcher. Believe it or not, that’s pretty good. (“He’s catching more than I thought,” Noesi said.) Montero has caught only Noesi and veteran Kevin Millwood, with Olivo receiving the others.

Millwood has worked with scores of catchers over 418 big league starts, beginning with Tim Spehr on July 19, 1997. His assessment of Montero: “He’s not bad. He’s not as far away as a lot of people seem to be saying he is. There’s obviously things he’s got to work on and get better at, just like any young catcher.”

Is he ready to be an everyday catcher right now?

“I don’t know about right now,” Millwood said. “But he’s not far away. A lot of people say he can’t catch. That’s not the case.”

Montero’s defense has an offensive component, in the sense that he has hit better as a catcher than as a designated hitter. Wedge acknowledged that is the case for most hitters who split time between DH duty and the field. So, there is incentive for the Mariners to develop Montero into a competent defender behind the plate — as Wedge did with Victor Martinez in Cleveland.

Montero looks at Jorge Posada as the type of player he aspires to become. “Everybody said, ‘He can’t catch,’ but he (caught) for 15 years in the big leagues,” Montero said. “He was good. We’re kind of the same: We can hit, but everybody said we cannot catch. That motivates me to show people I can catch.”

Montero, as the DH, finished Tuesday’s on-field obligations by lucking into a rare infield single in the top of the ninth. Wedge then pulled him for a pinch runner, but he lingered in the dugout. Montero watched the final outs from the top step — where a manager might stand. He even crouched like a catcher during part of the inning. He’s trying to be a careful student. As he reminded me, “I have just two months in the big leagues.”

For Montero, that means a season of hitting, catching and observing. Pineda only can do the last of those. No one wanted that to be the case.

The Mariners hope Pineda has a healthy, fulfilling career. But if the Yankees offered him for Montero today, the answer would be no.