(Here’s today’s Mariner minor-league report).
Jesus Montero is an intriguing fellow — albeit frustrating at times.
When the Mariners acquired him from the Yankees, we heard all about what a hot mess he was behind the plate, but what a prodigy he was at the plate.
Now, it seems, we’re barely seeing either side of Montero. He has started 19 games at catcher, compared to 16 for Kelly Shoppach, but eight of those came in the first 11 games of the season. Since then, Montero has started two fewer than Shoppach. Jon Heyman of CBS wrote a piece last week claiming there was a debate in the organization about Montero’s playing time, with some in their front office wanting manager Eric Wedge to play Montero more.
I asked Wedge about that in Pittsburgh, and he said that he and general manager Jack Zduriencik are on the same page, though he said he hadn’t heard about Heyman’s article.
“We’re always talking,” he said. “Jack’s been great. He’s always been great with me about the lineup. We always have discussions about players, who’s doing this or who’s doing what. He’s always been very respectful. No different than you guys, if I’m not playing (someone), I’ll explain to him why. There’s always a rhyme or reason. The coaches and I, we talk about the lineup each and every day. But no, there’s been no issue with that, and I’m not sure where that came from.”
There’s no question Montero has had his defensive issues. But Wedge — speaking before the game Wednesday in which Montero hit the game-winning homer and throw out his first base-runner in 16 attempts, helped out when the runner stopped — gave expansive praise to the work Montero has put in honing his catching skills, particularly on the days he’s not playing. In fact, Wedge said the same thing Zduriencik told me a couple of weeks ago — that the defensive effort may be detracting from his offense. Because Montero’s hitting has been the biggest disappointment this season. He’s straddling the .200 mark and has just four extra-base hits — a far cry from the surefire slugger he was supposed to be.
“I think offensively, it’s been tough for him, just because to his credit, he’s put so much time and effort into his defense,” Wedge said. “I mean, he’s really committed to it. Not just the physical aspect, but the mental aspect, calling a game. He’s taking a lot of pride. He fully understands the responsibility. I think that’s taken some away from him offensively.
“Offensively, I think (Dave) Hansen has done a nice job helping him commit to a better approach in batting practice. Has it leaked into his game yet? From time to time, but not consistently. He’s still young, still learning. He’s still trying to figure out the player he is and ultimately is going to be. He’s just not there yet. We have to give it some time and see how it plays out.”
One question I think has to be asked — and was on Wednesday, by Shannon Drayer — is why go to so much effort to hone Montero’s defense when the Mariners have two defensive-minded catchers, Mike Zunino and John Hicks — not that far away in the minors. Here’s how Wedge answered:
“Because I believe in the test of time. I believe you give it every opportunity. Like I’ve always said, you’d rather be a day late than a day early. Because you can’t change the day early. You can’t replay that. That’s just the lesson in discipline. That’s where the press, or the fans, 0r sometimes people even internally, have to understand. Because that’s my job as a manager, to play that out. That’s the discipline and the strength I have to have. So when we make a decision…I’m a big believer in conviction. When you do it, you’d better be damn sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and you’re doing it at the right time.”
I think Wedge still sees the potential for Montero to be a player like he had in Cleveland in Victor Martinez, to whom he often compares him (in fact, he’s said Montero is more advanced defensively than Martinez was in his early days).
“I think all catchers need to be defense first,” Wedge said. “Victor Martinez was a great offensive player. The only reason he caught as long as he did, he committed to the other side. Jesus’s carrying tool will be offense, no different than Victor. But you still need that commitment behind the plate. What I like about Jesus, and I’m not sure if it will stand the test of time — we don’t know yet; we’re giving it every opportunity — what I do appreciate, he’s really committed to that, to the mental side of the game, calling the game, to catching.
“Physically, have their been some issues? Yeah. Fundamentally, have their been some issues? Yeah. But you can’t deny the commitment, and I think that’s what we all appreciate.”
After Wednesday’s big game by Montero, Wedge said, “The kid’s working hard. He’s so young and he’s learning so much. I think he’s starting to get to the point where he can put a little more energy into his hitting because he has been catching there for a little bit now.”
I know there’s been some talk about letting Montero work on all this in the minors. That’s legitimate, but Zunino needs to play every day, and I don’t think he’s quite ready for the majors yet. It wouldn’t serve him to take away playing time with Tacoma, and it wouldn’t serve Montero to sit on the bench with Tacoma. You could give up on the catching altogether and make Montero a full-time DH, as Steve Phillips suggested recently to Mitch Levy on KJR. That would essentially mean pulling the plug on Justin Smoak, and moving Kendrys Morales to first base. Again, a legitimate debate, but I don’t think the Mariners are ready to do either. Maybe it will come to that, but not yet.
So what I would like to see is for Montero to move back into doing the bulk of the catching for the Mariners. Let him put all this hard work on defense into play, and give him a fair chance to find his stroke. If Jesus Montero is going to turn into Victor Martinez, let’s accelerate the process. If not, then let’s find that out and then figure out the alternatives.