TAMPA, Fla. -- The baby-faced prospect who is supposed to become the next big thing in the Bronx waggled a Louisville Slugger behind his head, already down two strikes but refusing to concede any ground in the batter's box.

Jesus Montero's future may still be up for debate, but there is one thing that everyone within spitting distance of the Yankees seems to agree on: This 21-year-old has all the tools to mash big league pitching right now.

And as Montero whistled a bullet past a tumbling shortstop for a run-scoring single in Saturday afternoon's 10-8 loss to the Nationals, the slugger's steely intention to begin the season on the Yankees' roster as a backup to Russell Martin seems to inch closer to reality.

"He knows how to hit; it's probably the best way to put it," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "He has good recognition of pitches, usually. It's just from work. If he gets behind in the count, he doesn't panic. He's still going to put a good swing on you."

Montero's slugging stroke is no surprise for the Yankees, who coughed up a $1.6 million signing bonus to make sure he had this chance.

Last year, Montero belted 21 homers in his debut at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, sending the product of Venezuela into this spring all but banging on the clubhouse doors for a crack at Yankee Stadium.

"I think I'm ready -- I'm working on it every single day with my coaches here," Montero said. "My goal this year is to get to the big leagues, be on the team and help the pitchers and the regular catcher. That's what I'm thinking this year."

With Francisco Cervelli sidelined for a month by a fractured left foot, Montero's chances of going north to New York have skyrocketed.

The Yankees won't exclude Austin Romine and Gustavo Molina from the discussion, noting that Romine could have held his own defensively in the big leagues last year and that Molina has done it already. But the sense is that they are looking for Montero to make their call an easy one.

"I've watched him catch the ball, frame the ball," Girardi said. "I've watched him throw; I've been happy with that. This is something he wants, and you see him working like he wants it."

Montero's size -- he's 6-foot-4 -- had prompted scouts to whisper, with some even predicting that he'd have no chance to make it as a catcher.

Perhaps his bat would make him into a right-handed-hitting version of Carlos Delgado, who once abandoned his gear in favor of a new life playing first base. Montero said those criticisms fueled him.

"I want to be behind the plate every single time," Montero said. "I don't want to lose all four years I've been catching with the Yankees. I want to be behind the plate. I want to catch and help them win."

The comparison you hear now is to another catcher, one whose bat carried him to the doorstep of Cooperstown: Mike Piazza. Too ambitious for a 21-year-old still lacking his first big league plate appearance? Not necessarily, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman believes.

"Because of the bat, yes, I understand that," Cashman says. "And I'll tell you what, Piazza was a [heckuva] receiver. I heard he was a great game-caller. There were parts of Piazza's catching that probably get unfairly forgotten."

Cashman's thoughts then drift to the rosters he had control over, and he finds another comparison in Jorge Posada, the switch-hitting force whom Cashman feels secure in calling "a bona fide Hall of Famer" now that his catching career appears mostly complete.

"Posada was the same way," Cashman continued. "He didn't get here because of his defense -- he got here because of his bat. But Posada wasn't a bad defender, either. Posada is an offensive catcher that can catch, and we think Montero is an offensive catcher that can catch. We think he's better than people think."

Some skills, honed by working last year with former Major Leaguer Butch Wynegar at Triple-A, have been flashed already.

During a game against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., this week, Montero gunned down two would-be basestealers, including a throw to second base that the Yankees clocked at under two seconds. Cashman said he already evaluates Montero as being better than some Major League receivers.

"We have no doubt he's going to be a catcher," Cashman said. "I guarantee the same scouts who said 'No way' are now saying 'Maybe' or 'He will.' We felt he'd be there regardless."

For the Yankees' coaches, the improvements are noticeable. Girardi gets a Minor League information packet on his desk every day during the season, but photocopies of box scores don't offer a complete picture. Just seeing Montero catch bullpen sessions was enough.

"From last year compared to now, it's totally different," Girardi said. "There's a guy that's relaxed, who understands what he's doing. Blocking balls, he just looks comfortable. Last year, it seemed like he was still searching for some of the finer things as a catcher."

This spring, Montero has huddled often with catching coach Tony Pena and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. So much progress has been made that the Yankees believe Montero could learn just as much by catching once or twice per week at the Major League level as he could by playing every day at Triple-A.

"You have to make the jump sometime, or no one ever gets here," Girardi said. "There are a lot of people who've handled the jump extremely well. Some people don't, and you deal with that, but the kid works hard. He's talented. There's nothing that leads you to believe he couldn't handle it."

No problem, says Montero, who is trying to speak to pitchers as much as possible this spring, preparing by learning tendencies and repertoires, just in case he locks down the assignment he wants most.

"I haven't played in the big leagues yet, so if I'm staying with the team, I'm going to know a lot with the veteran guys that are here, like Jorge and everybody else," Montero said. "They're going to teach me, and I'm going to learn real quick. That'll be awesome for me."