Swing remains the thing for Montero

Mariners hope Jesus Montero keeps hitting with Tacoma to earn his way back to Seattle

t.cotterill@thenewstribune.comJuly 30, 2013 

Seattle’s Jesus Montero, right, seen as the Mariners’ catcher of the future when he was acquired from the Yankees, is now in the minors learning another position.

TONY DEJAK /THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jesus Montero’s batting average plummeted, he received a demotion to Triple-A Tacoma, was told to change from a position he has always loved and then, to top it off, he tore the meniscus in his left knee.

It’s been a challenging year for Montero, who now wears the uniform of the Tacoma Rainiers and not the Seattle Mariners. But his biggest challenge is how he handles what’s next – becoming the player who was a top prospect while with the New York Yankees, or becoming one of the can’t-miss guys who did.

“It’s easy to be hard on yourself,” Montero said. “But you have to go out and have fun and you can’t let the bad things get to you. Anything can happen in and out of the stadium. You just have to pick yourself up.”

Montero hasn’t played a game at catcher for the Rainiers since returning from the disabled list on July 18. He has shifted between first base and designated hitter (he made an error at first base for the Rainiers that led to the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday in Reno), though it’s unclear whether catching is completely out of the question.

His struggles in his 29 games with the Mariners didn’t end with his .208 batting average and three home runs. Although Seattle had a winning record with Montero playing catcher – 15-10 in games he started – he struggled to control opponents’ running game; teams were successful on 24 out of 25 stolen base attempts.

Not only did the Mariners need a defensive upgrade, they needed to keep the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Montero healthy from the bumps and bruises that catchers endure in the hope they can find the hitter who made such a splash with the Yankees in 2011.

“We all liked his bat and we thought this guy has a chance to be a really good offensive player,” Mariners general manager Jack

Zduriencik said about Montero, who slugged four homers in his first 18 games with the Yankees.

“We were willing to take the chance to let him work behind the plate to do that. I think we got the point where it was time to make this move and to put him in the best position to make him a successful offensive player.”

UNTAPPED TALENT

Tacoma hitting coach Howard Johnson already sees it.

Montero has quick hands, and gets his bat through the hitting zone fast. Real fast.

Johnson watched Montero throughout spring training. His bat speed wasn’t this good, nor was his pitch selection.

“I’m seeing now what everybody has told me about him as a hitter – that he is dangerous,” Johnson said. “Whatever it is – his leg, knee, not catching, whatever – he is in a good place right now offensively.”

It shows in the box score, too. Since returning from the disabled list, Montero is 5-for-23 (.217) with four doubles. He hit one double in 29 games with the Mariners.

It’s a limited sample, but the way Montero is hitting has impressed Johnson more than the numbers.

“The word when he was with the Yankees is that he is a guy who could hit and hit all over the field,” said Johnson, who was hired in the offseason after serving as hitting coach for the New York Mets from 2008-10. Johnson was a member of the franchise’s 1986 World Series championship club.

“He can hit. Flat out,” Johnson said. “If you don’t run well and you can hit like that, it means you can hit.”

Montero didn’t break out in his first full major league season last year, but he hit a promising .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBI as a 22-year-old for the Mariners. He ranked as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect in the Seattle organization.

Improvement was expected this season. Not regression.

LOSING FAITH

It all happened fast. Real fast.

The Mariners were seven games under .500, in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, when Montero, hovering just above a .200 average, was demoted in late May.

A week following his demotion to Tacoma, Montero went on the disabled list with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Then the Mariners called up catcher Mike Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012. Zunino almost immediately won the admiration of fans for his maturity and defensive abilities.

Seattle caught fire around the All-Star break, winning eight consecutive games, and saw its record ascend close to .500, which offered even more reason to forget about Montero.

But Rainiers manager John Stearns said he doesn’t think Montero is the odd-man out just yet.

“We haven’t lost our faith in him,” Stearns said. “From what I can tell, he’s got a high ceiling with his bat in this business. We think he can come back and be the kind of right-hand hitter we need on our major league team.

“We have not written him off in any way, shape or form.”

BIOGENESIS RUMORS

Reports of alleged documents linking more than 80 players to an anti-aging clinic in Miami, owned by Tony Bosch, continue to swirl and earned more credibility when MLB announced Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, the 2011 National League MVP, would be suspended 65 games for violations of the basic agreement and the league’s joint drug prevention and treatment program.

MLB did not mention the Biogenesis lab in its announcement of the suspension, though Braun was reported to be among clients such as Alex Rodriguez, Bartolo Colon, Nelson Cruz and Melky Cabrera in Bosch’s documents.

So was Montero.

Montero would not comment following a Rainiers game July 22, his third game back from the disabled list and the same day Braun’s suspension was announced.

“I cannot tell you anything about this,” he said. “I’m not going to comment on that.”

Zduriencik wouldn’t address it, either, other than to say, “Everything is in Major League Baseball’s hands.”

An ESPN report in June said MLB is looking to discipline about 20 players listed in the documents, including possibly Montero and other linked players.

‘CATCHING’ A BREAK

Montero appears to be steadily improving at first base, though he said, “I’m still waiting for one of the rockets to come at me.”

He’s been playing roughly every other day since his return from the knee injury.

“I’ve never played first base in my life,” Montero said. “So there’s learning to do every day. But I think if you can catch, you can play any other position.”

Many players started careers at catcher before moving.

Former Blue Jays, Marlins and Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado entered pro baseball as a catcher before moving to first.

B.J. Surhoff was the No.1 overall pick as a catcher by the Brewers in 1985 before moving to the corner infield spots and the outfield.

Dale Murphy struggled as a catcher for the Braves before moving to center field and winning back-to-back National League MVP awards in 1982-83.

Even Raul Ibañez played one game at catcher (for the Mariners in 1999) in his 17-year big-league career .

Zduriencik said he had thought about changing Montero’s position since acquiring him from the Yankees for All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda.

“Baseball has many examples of players who have offensive ability and, to take away the strain and the wear and tear as a catcher, find other alternatives to allow them to thrive,” Zduriencik said. “That’s exactly what we’ve done with Jesus.

“It’s best for him, for his career and for him to be a productive offensive player to take away his workload from behind the plate.”

Montero loves catching and will be ready to get behind the plate when asked, but said he wants to do whatever is best for the team.

Stearns, a four-time All-Star catcher with the Mets between 1977-82, said he thinks Montero will have opportunities to catch again. Plus, he provides great value to the team if he can slide in as the team’s No. 3 catcher.

“He can catch, he’s not bad,” Stearns said. “We don’t want to say he can’t catch because I think he can. We think he can as an organization. We just want to find a spot where, with our younger guys, he can get consistent at-bats in the big leagues.”

But even if he quickly learns first base, it doesn’t mean Montero will garner an immediate promotion because of the Mariners’ congestion at first and designated hitter.

The options at first are vast with Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse. Montero could DH, but that’s where Ibañez has played when not in left field, and both Morales and Morse regularly DH.

Aside from injuries to those players, Montero’s best shot to get back with the Mariners is to hit.

“He’s got God-given ability and God-given gifts that a lot of people don’t have,” Zduriencik said. “I’ve seen players like Jesus Montero become stars, and I’ve seen players with his type of ability never reach their potential.

“He’s got to take this challenge to heart and give it everything he has. He has great, raw ability as a hitter. Now he has to refine his game and become the offensive force that we think he can become. That’s up to him.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677 t.cotterill@thenewstribune.com @Cotterill44

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