SEATTLE — Under the heading of “catchers” on the Seattle Mariners’ 40-man roster, there is just one name.
That is the challenge being placed before Jesus Montero. Ultimately, he won’t have to do it all by himself, but there is no question that Seattle is heading into spring training with the idea that Montero will be its primary catcher. Throw in that Montero is just 23 and headed into his second full season in the majors and the task becomes even more significant.
If there is a major position player concern for the Mariners as they head into spring training in about two weeks, it’s their depth behind the plate, where Montero is currently the only sure thing Seattle has. There are a handful of spring training invitees who very well could make the final roster out of spring, and some additional roster moves general manger Jack Zduriencik could make.
But for now, Montero is preparing himself to be Seattle’s everyday catcher. Is it a risk to rely so heavily on the youngster? Maybe, especially since he caught only 56 games last season for Seattle. But Montero has a pretty strong understanding of what is going to be asked of him.
“I’m preparing myself to catch every day if I can catch every day,” Montero said during the Mariners’ annual fan gathering last weekend. “Everybody knows that sometimes I get tired, everybody gets tired. I’m going to try to be behind home plate every single time.”
Whether Montero can become an everyday catcher was one of the primary questions when Seattle traded for him before the start of the 2012 season. Because of the catching rotation he was involved in during his rookie season, there wasn’t much resolved about Montero’s future as a full-time catcher.
But with the departures of Miguel Olivo (free agent) and John Jaso (trade), the position is now Montero’s alone. There is help on the way in the minors with last year’s first-round pick Mike Zunino and prospect John Hicks, but neither one is likely to make the Mariners roster out of spring.
“It’s more on the mental than the physical side of things. I don’t have any doubt he can handle it from a talent perspective, that he can handle the role fundamentally,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. “But being so young and inexperienced, the mental grind . we ask a great deal of our catchers here. And then the physical grind that goes along with it, that’s pretty real. But he knows he’s coming here to catch. It’ll ultimately be my decision in regard to how much he does catch, but we’re going to ask him to catch as much as we feel he can to go out there and perform the way he’s capable of performing.”
Montero is coming off a rookie season that ebbed and flowed like most first seasons do. At times he was the Mariners’ best hitter and at others he looked young and frustrated at the plate. He finished the year hitting .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBIs.
Part of the situation heading into this season is that Seattle needs Montero to be its primary catcher to keep his bat in the lineup and help figure out a logjam of new acquisitions who all could fill the designated hitter spot — Montero’s primary role in his rookie season. The Mariners traded for Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse, and signed Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez, all of whom could likely see playing time at a variety of positions this season. But to maximize the potential of a lineup that’s been offensively the worst in baseball the last three years, they need Montero catching and not taking up the designated hitter spot.
Montero was significantly better as a hitter in his rookie season when he was catching. In the 56 games he caught, Montero hit .310 with a slugging percentage of nearly .500, 10 home runs and 32 RBIs. His power numbers dipped significantly as a DH, despite getting nearly 100 more at-bats. Montero hit just five homers as a DH, struck out 60 times and had a slugging percentage of just .310.
“Being in the big leagues, it’s not easy, but I know that now. Now I know how it’s going to be this year,” Montero said.
Montero was also given the challenge in the offseason of trimming his frame, cutting down on his body fat and becoming a better runner. At first glance last weekend, Montero appeared to have slimmed down and said, “I learned to run.” Just to make sure Montero understood what Seattle was asking, he was brought in last week to be looked over by team personnel to make sure he took his offseason program seriously.
“Last year, you know I’m slow, but (I think) I can run a little better and I gain a little more speed,” Montero said. “That’s what I did, was run.”