SEATTLE — The Jesus Montero reclamation project spiked upward Saturday when, in his first big-league appearance in more than a year, he batted cleanup for the Mariners against Texas.
“He’s here to hit off left-handers,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I’ve got to put somebody in the four-hole, and there’s a left-hander (Joe Saunders) on the mound.
“I think (Montero) is a better option (than other possibilities). He’s got some power, and maybe he’ll run into something behind Robby (Cano).”
The Mariners recalled Montero from the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers before Thursday’s series finale against the Yankees.
Montero, 24, had eight home runs and 40 RBIs in 59 games for the Rainiers while hitting .270 with a .345 on-base percentage and .455 slugging percentage.
“I’m happy to be back with the team,” he said. “Everybody knows that. I can’t wait to play.”
Montero was viewed as one of the game’s top prospects when the Mariners acquired him from the Yankees in a Jan. 20, 2102 trade. After an encouraging rookie season, he slumped badly last year and was optioned to Tacoma.
His season soon spiraled downward.
After missing nearly seven weeks because of a knee injury, Montero received a 50-game suspension for allegedly obtaining performance-enhancing drugs from Biogenesis, a health clinic in Coral Gables, Fla.
Montero then reported for spring training at 40 pounds over his targeted weight and was optioned Tacoma shortly after minor league clubs began full-squad workouts.
“As he got in shape,” McClendon said, “the bat speed came back. That was a tough year for him, the previous year, for obvious reasons. I think he’s bouncing back. I think he’s eager to make amends.”
TRADE RUMORS I
The Mariners are among clubs showing interest in right-handed pitchers Jeff Samardzija and former South Kitsap High star Jason Hammel, whom the Cubs are shopping, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The paper also identified Atlanta and Toronto among interested clubs and cited an unidentified “major league source” as predicting Hammel would end up with the Mariners.
The Chicago Tribune reported the Mariners showed interest this year in Samardzija and noted their depth in starting pitchers make them an enticing trade partner.
The Cubs want two high-end pitching prospects for Samardzija and would presumably demand either Taijuan Walker or James Paxton be included in any deal along with another prospect.
The reports were downplayed by Mariners’ officials.
Samardzija, 29, is 2-6 this season despite a 2.77 ERA in 14 starts. He is making $5.345 million and will be eligible after the season for arbitration. Samardzija is on track to qualify for free agency after the 2015 season.
Hammel, 31, is making $6 million but would likely come at a cheaper price, in part because he will be a free agent after the season. He is 6-4 this season with a 2.81 ERA in 13 starts.
TRADE RUMORS II
The rumor mill also links the Mariners to a player being shopped by Chicago’s other club: shortstop Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox.
Still, this rumor makes some sense: Ramirez, 32, is a right-handed bat — something the Mariners covet — and is enjoying a renaissance season with seven homers, 36 RBI and a .309 average in 69 games.
His .344 on-base percentage, if maintained, would be the best of his seven-year career.
But adding Ramirez would require a payroll boost. He is making $9.5 million this season and is guaranteed $10 million in 2015. His deal has a club option for $10 million, with a $1 million buyout, for 2016.
A 1-0 loss Friday marked the 37th start in Felix Hernandez’s career when he’s allowed one or fewer runs without recording a victory.
If you have to ask; yes, that’s the most of any active pitcher.
Hernandez also has a 7-4 career record in 1-0 games. Friday was also the 58th time in his career when he’s pitched at least eight innings while allowing one or no runs.
Saturday was “Felix Hernandez King’s Court Train Car Night,” which meant the first 20,000 through the gates got a free bright-yellow model railroad car.
It marked the 15th train-related giveaway since 2000. Past promotions included:
The Edgar Martinez Gar Car (2002), Bret Boone Boonie Box Car (2003), Ichiro Express Engine (2004), Adrian Beltre A-Train (2006), J.J. Putz Flamethrower Express (2008) and the Justin Smoakamotive (2012).
The Mariners entered the night with a 5-9 record on train-giveaway nights.
First baseman Ji-Man Choi is back with Triple-A Tacoma after just four games at Double-A Jackson following his return from a 50-game suspension for testing positive for steroids.
Choi, 23, was 3-for-11 with four walks for the Generals and hit a homer Friday in a doubleheader sweep over Jacksonville (Marlins). He batted .394 in 10 games for Tacoma prior to his suspension.
The Mariners also promoted lefty reliever Stephen Kohlscheen to Tacoma from Jackson. Kohlscheen, 25, was 1-1 with six saves and a 2.25 ERA in 23 games for the Generals.
Jackson right-hander Victor Sanchez was picked by Baseball America as its Prospect Pitcher of the Day for Friday after pitching a two-hit, seven-inning shutout in a 6-0 victory over Jacksonville.
The Mariners and Rangers conclude their three-game series at 1:10 p.m. Sunday at Safeco Field. Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (4-3, 2.79 ERA) will start against Texas right-hander Nick Martinez (1-3, 4.63). Root Sports will broadcast the email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners