Major League Preview

For 2012, Mariners Want Jesus Montero To Focus On Hitting

PEORIA, Ariz.—A reporter in Mariners spring training camp recently asked John Jaso for his impressions of Jesus Montero's catching skills.

"I saw him in Triple-A. I thought he was good," Jaso replied, then laughed and turned to Montero, who had just arrived at his locker next to fellow catcher Jaso.

"Why do people keep asking about that?" Jaso said to Montero, who had overheard the question.

"All the time," Montero replied with a smirk.

It's the burning question for Montero: Does he have the defensive skills to catch in the major leagues? But the truth is, that's a secondary issue at the moment for the Mariners,  who paid the hefty price of potential ace Michael Pineda, as well as pitching prospect Jose Campos, to land Montero (and righthander Hector Noesi) from the Yankees.

The main position the Mariners want Montero to play in 2012 is hitter. They plan to use the year to assess his catching skills, work assiduously with him on his technique, and get him into an occasional game behind the plate.

Except for the intermittent games Montero catches—and manager Eric Wedge isn't ready to put a number on it—he will be the DH for a Mariners team that has set new standards for offensive deficiency in recent years. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who called Montero the best player he's ever traded, said, "He's going to be a middle-of-the-order player. He's going to have a heck of a career. He really is."

The Mariners are banking on it. He'll hit in the middle of their lineup, perhaps fifth, behind Justin Smoak. If Montero can eventually catch—and scouts are deeply divided on that question—his value just goes up. But if he can be an impact hitter, the Mariners will have gotten what they sought, regardless of his eventual position. Some believe Montero will eventually be a first baseman if not a DH.

"We're going to give him every opportunity to be all he can be, whatever that might be," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "We know that he's a quality young man, we know he's a guy that has a chance to be a very good offensive player. He's a smart kid. And he's going to get every opportunity to catch as well. So things will work themselves out, but what we like is the player we've acquired."

Mariners manager Eric Wedge says flatly that Miguel Olivo is the Mariners' regular catcher this season. Wedge, a former major league catcher himself, points out that most catchers take awhile to develop, and that at age 22, it would be unrealistic to expect Montero to be a finished product. That said, Wedge has been favorably impressed by his skills early in camp.

"I do feel confident he's going to be a solid big league catcher, and without a doubt he has the potential to be an everyday big league catcher," Wedge said. "I don't think he should expect anything less from himself, because I don't. But we're not going to rush this thing. I don't want to push that and it winds up taking longer. Because we have (Olivo) here, we don't have to throw him right in the fire, and we're not.

"We're looking at him more as breaking him in in a backup role this year, and work to get him to be an everyday guy in the future. Whenever that will be, we'll find out. He has a lot to learn, and we feel we have the people here to really help him make that transition."

Big Fish, Small Pond

Montero, meanwhile, seems delighted to be in Seattle, where he can be a big fish in a small pond compared to New York. When he finally arrived in Seattle after the trade, having been delayed by visa problems, he did a whirlwind media tour and made several local appearances. Since camp opened, all eyes have been on him, whether it is close scrutiny of his defensive work or oohs and ahs over his all-fields power in batting practice.

"It's been fun," Montero said. "I've been trying to have fun with Miguel. Trying to have fun with the other catchers. I'm trying to do everything right. But the most important thing is having fun over here."

In an early intrasquad game, Montero blocked a ball in the dirt to save a run, and in the next game threw out Olivo trying to steal. He is steadfast in his belief that he can make it behind the plate.

"I'm going to work hard to be a catcher in the big leagues for a long time," he said. "It's not easy to do, but I'm working hard every single day, coming to the stadium and doing all I can do."

Montero said he learned a valuable lesson in dedication from none other than Alex Rodriguez, who knows something about being a heralded prospect in Seattle. Last year during spring training with the Yankees, A-Rod told Montero he was going to fine him $100 every day he didn't go to the batting cage for extra hitting.

Montero heeded the prodding and began to work harder at honing his skills, offensively and defensively. After a slow start at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre that many believe was the result of Montero's disappointment over not breaking camp with the Yankees, he was hitting .288/.348/.467 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs when the Yankees called him up in September. In 18 games—just three of them behind the plate—Montero hit .328/.406/.590 with four homers, and he made the Yankees roster for the Division Series against the Tigers.

"I learned so much listening to Alex, to (Jorge) Posada, (hitting coach) Kevin Long," Montero said. "Sometimes in the minor leagues I didn't used to listen a lot. I didn't catch those things they were telling me. Alex taught me a lot of good things. He was amazing to me. I tried to put those things in the game, and that was good."

Going The Opposite Way

It was another former Mariner, one of their icons, who helped instill in Montero his invaluable propensity for using all fields, with remarkable opposite-field power. As a youngster of 11 or 12 watching ballgames in Veneuzela, Jesus would watch with rapt attention whenever Edgar Martinez came to the plate.

"I used to tell my dad he was going to see me on TV one day, and he did last year," Montero said. "I remember at the moment I was telling my dad that, Edgar hit a double to right field. I told my dad, 'I'm going to be like him, hitting the ball to right field.' "

On one of his first days at Safeco Field after the trade, he met Martinez, who lives in Seattle.

"That was a pleasure, an honor," Montero said.

The Mariners are hoping that future young players will one day be thrilled to meet Jesus Montero.