Mariners’ Montero learning on the job

SEATTLE — Back when the Mariners acquired Jesus Montero in one of baseball’s biggest offseason trades, the common perception from, well, pretty much everywhere, was that Seattle had landed itself one heck of a hitter, but not a viable catcher, never mind the C listed next to his name on the roster.

But while most of the baseball world assumed that Montero’s future was not behind the plate, Mariners manager Eric Wedge, himself a former catcher, insisted that, with time, Montero could develop into a solid major league backstop. Montero too, has maintained all along since coming to the Mariners that he wants to be a catcher.

Well now, under less than ideal circumstances, Montero is getting that chance while starting catcher Miguel Olivo recovers from a groin injury. Just a couple of weeks ago, Wedge talked about the dangers of rushing Montero into the catching job, noting that his long-term growth would actually be hampered by daily duty behind the plate.

“You’ve got so much responsibility back there and there are so many things that you’ve got to have going on back there, so it takes time,” Wedge said last month. “He’s not ready to catch every day yet. … What people need to understand is that it would actually take him longer to be the total player he needs to be if he was back there every day right now, because it would get in the way of his development.”

Wedge said that, of course, before Olivo went down on the turf in Tampa Bay and ended up on the 15-day disabled list. Olivo’s injury means that, for a while anyway, Montero, who the Mariners acquired from the Yankees in a trade for pitcher Michael Pineda, has seen his workload increase pretty significantly.

Prior to the injury, Montero started five of his first 21 games at catcher, but since then he has caught four of Seattle’s last six games. Yes the Mariners can still spell Montero with John Jaso, but the lineups Wedge has put out since Olivo’s injury have made it clear that Wedge sees Montero as his best option at catcher until Olivo returns.

“He’s still going to split time with Jaso, so he’s not going to have to carry the weight of catching every day on his shoulders,” Wedge said. “… He’s handling it fine, he’s doing the work, but it’s going to be an education for him, no doubt about it.”

Montero obviously didn’t want to see Olivo, whom he refers to as his brother, go down to an injury, but he is also trying to embrace this chance to prove he is a capable catcher.

“I don’t wish anything bad to nobody, especially my brother, Miggy,” Montero said. “I want the best for him and want him back on the team helping us win. … But I just try to do the best I can. When you get an opportunity, you just try to do the best you can and call a good game for the pitchers.”

While Montero won’t be confused with Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate anytime soon — teams are running noticeably more when he is in the game compared to when Olivo played — he has hardly been a disaster either.

“It’s been fine,” Montero said of his increased workload. “There have been ups and downs, but it’s been fine. I just try to listen to the coaches and to (Olivo) and try to get better every game.”

While this isn’t the situation Wedge was hoping for coming into the season, he has seen growth from Montero on an almost daily basis when he is behind the plate.

“It’s an education for Jesus every night too,” Wedge said. “He’s been doing a nice job back there, but every situation he goes through, every different type of game, it’s a first for him. But all and all, he’s done a nice job.”

And during a season in which, so far anyway, the present has looked pretty bleak, Montero has at least provided hope for the future.

He came to Seattle billed as one of the best young hitting prospects in baseball, and so far Montero has lived up to the hype, hitting .287 with 4 home runs, 4 doubles, 15 RBI and a .446 slugging percentage.

The even better news for the Mariners, particularly with Olivo out, is that Montero is hitting significantly better in games when he catches. As a designated hitter, Montero is batting .200 with 1 home run and 7 RBI. In his ten games as a catcher, however, Montero is hitting .444 with 3 homers, 3 doubles, 8 RBI and a 1.225 OPS. Those number will inevitably even out quite a bit — he helped spark Sunday’s win with a 2-run double as the DH — but it is a good sign that days that require a heavier workload aren’t adversely affecting his performance behind the plate, but rather appear to be helping him.

“It’s too small of sample size,” Wedge said. “But I do think it’s more difficult for young players to DH just because you’re not in the field and that’s the only thing you’re focused on, but when it’s all said and done, because he is a good hitter, he’ll have enough time DHing that he’ll get pretty good at it.”

When Olivo returns, Montero will get more chances to get pretty good at DHing, but for now he is more than happy to show that he can, in fact, handle life behind the plate.

“I’m here for opportunity,” he said. “I just want to help the team win, and right now that means catching more with Miggy out.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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