Montero sent to Tacoma to find his swing

Jesus Montero is now a former catcher, who needs to deliver on offensive promise

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comMay 24, 2013 

On the heels of a six-game losing streak and a 2-7 trip, the Seattle Mariners made an expected and needed roster move on Thursday.

Catcher Jesus Montero was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma. Montero was in uniform for the finale of the Rainiers’ homestand Thursday night, but did not play.

The Mariners have not announced a corresponding roster move. But according to sources in the organization, Tacoma backup catcher Jesus Sucre will be selected from the Rainiers.

Double-A backup catcher Brandon Bantz, who was serving as the starter in Jackson after John Hicks suffered a groin injury and went on the disabled list, was called up to the Rainiers. He will back up prized prospect and catcher of the future Mike Zunino.

While the move had been anticipated, Montero didn’t quite understand when general manager Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge told him he was being sent down.

“It had to be explained to him,” Zduriencik said before the Rainiers’ game at Cheney Stadium. “Eric and I sat in there together and we explained that sometime you have to take a step backward to take two steps forward. We appreciate his effort. He’s done an awful lot to try and become a catcher. He’s worked very hard at it.”

With three catchers in Tacoma, and Zunino getting the bulk of the playing time, it appears the Mariners may have finally taken a step back from the idea that Montero will be a catcher at the big league level.

“He’s going to be playing a lot of first base,” Zduriencik said.

Montero will still catch a game or two a week to give Zunino a break, but it’s no longer his primary position.

“In the long run, when you view the organization, presently and in the future, certainly in the future, it would be better for him to have more versatility,” Zduriencik said.

Montero’s demotion to Triple-A seemed to be more imminent with each passing day – and with each failed at-bat. While much of the focus has been on his defense – and his struggles to catch at a serviceable level in the majors – Montero’s hitting has been his biggest issue.

While being one of the top prospects in baseball a few years ago, it was a given that Montero would never be even an above-average defensive catcher. His lack of athleticism, his size and fundamental flaws seemed too much to overcome. But his hitting, in particular his raw power to all fields, was supposed to offset those defensive shortcomings.

But the Mariners have yet to see that offensive prowess since acquiring him in a trade for Michael Pineda before the 2012 season. A year ago, he showed glimpses of it, hitting .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBI. He struggled for periods, and his impatience at the plate and lack of an approach were issues. He struck out 99 times and had 29 walks, posting a .298 on-base percentage to go with a .386 slugging percentage.

This season, Montero appears to have regressed. Named the starting catcher before spring training, he lost the job less than a month into the season, and began splitting time with veteran Kelly Shoppach. Montero struggled badly at the plate, showing an even worse approach than a year ago. And the numbers reflected it.

He is seeing just 3.39 pitches per at-bat. The league average is 3.85. He is hitting .208 (21-for-101) with just five extra-base hits and nine RBI. He has 21 strikeouts and just eight walks with a .264 on-base percentage and a .327 slugging percentage.

“The issue with (catching) was probably affecting him offensively,” Zduriencik said. “What he was brought here for was to be an offensive component to what we are doing. We all believe that he will be.

“I think we’ve seen really good things out of him. But this day-in-and-day-out responsibility to become a catcher may not be in his best interest or our best interests. So what we wanted to do is to expand his horizons and give him the opportunity to play elsewhere and let him concentrate on being the offensive guy we think he can be.”

For a player of Montero’s promise and his status as part of the foundation for the organization, it’s a significant change.

“We aren’t down on him,” Zduriencik said. “We aren’t disappointed in him. But it is a reality of a young player going to the big leagues at a young age with great expectations, and all of the sudden you look up and you find out this is tough, this is the big leagues. So he comes down here and gets himself in the groove. He gets his swing back. And he fixes some things.”

This isn’t likely to be a brief stint in Triple-A. Barring injury at the big league level, Montero will be in Tacoma until he figures things out offensively.

“There’s no time frame on how long this takes – it’s not in a month from now, a week from now or three months from now. We are just going to let it play out,” Zduriencik said.

Much of Montero’s work will be on pitch recognition, understanding the strike zone and developing an approach that doesn’t have him swinging at anything and everything. At just 23 years old, there is time.

As for Sucre, he is a defensive catcher who impressed the big league coaching staff this spring. He is hitting .302 but has just 59 at-bats this season. To get Sucre on the 40-man roster, the team will have to make room. It’s possible pitcher Erasmo Ramirez could be moved to the 60-day disabled list with a triceps strain.

Why Sucre and not Zunino? Well, remember that at this time last year, Zunino was playing college baseball for Florida. And after a torrid start in the Pacific Coast League, he has cooled off considerably, hitting .220 (28-for-127) with 10 doubles, seven homers and 35 RBI. He has 41 strikeouts and 10 walks for an on-base percentage of .290. Triple-A pitchers have stopped throwing him fastballs in the strike zone. He’s now seeing a steady diet of breaking balls, off-speed pitches and elevated fastballs with two strikes.

He still needs time to mature and play every day. Forcing him into the big leagues before he is ready would likely do more harm than good at this point.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish

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