By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SEATTLE — It’s been almost a year and a half and some 200 big league games since the Seattle Mariners traded 23-year-old starting pitcher Michael Pineda and Class A pitching prospect Jose Campos to the New York Yankees in exchange for their top hitting prospect Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi.
And in that time, neither side could lay claim to victory, nor lament failure. It was a trade for need — hitting for the Mariners and starting pitching for the Yankees. But thus far neither team’s needs have been met.
It was a trade that was supposed to help both teams. And thus far, it hasn’t.
The key players of the trade — Montero and Pineda — have yet to live up to expectations.
The Yankees can take some solace in the fact that Pineda’s failures have been completely due to health. The big, hard-throwing right-hander, who was named to the American League All-Star team as a rookie with the Mariners, had shoulder issues in spring training in 2012 that led to labrum surgery. He never threw a big league pitch last season, and has yet to this season, though he’s expected to be ready to join the Yankees, possibly by June.
Meanwhile, Montero played an entire season for the Mariners last year. He put up decent numbers in his rookie season, playing in 135 games and hitting .260 (134-for-515) with 20 doubles, 15 homers and 62 RBI. His .298 on-base percentage and a .386 slugging percentage were below expectations.
He was touted to be slugging catcher along the lines of Mike Piazza or Victor Martinez — a player whose bat could make up for his deficiencies behind the plate.
Behind the plate, Montero had periods where he struggled. He threw out just 11 of 54 attempted base stealers and had seven passed balls. He wasn’t a great receiver, and understanding the art of calling a big league game was something alien to him. He was never known to be a great defensive catcher, and last year did nothing to change that perception.
Still, coming into this season, he was given the starting catching job by manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik, who traded away catcher John Jaso in the offseason. They had to see what Montero could do.
“It’s his job,” Wedge said during the pre-spring training luncheon. “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.”
The team added veteran Kelly Shoppach to serve as Montero’s backup and mentor this season.
It wasn’t supposed to be Montero’s job to lose, and yet he lost it, less than 20 games into the season. In the midst of an awful road trip in Texas, Wedge announced there would no longer be a starter or a backup — Montero and Shoppach would share the catching duties.
It’s not exactly what Wedge envisioned starting the season. But it needed to be done. Montero had yet to show the consistency at the plate or behind it that warranted daily time.
He’s hitting .200 with (17-for-85) with three homers and nine RBI. He has a .250 on-base percentage and a .341 slugging percentage. He was supposed to be a hitter first and a catcher second. Right now, he’s neither.
With hotshot top prospect Mike Zunino at Class AAA Tacoma and underrated catching prospect John Hicks at Class AA Jackson, there is some thought that Montero’s days as a catcher are numbered.
But Wedge, himself a former catcher, won’t give up on Montero at age 23, no matter how frustrating he can be. Wedge isn’t about to make a premature determination about who Montero is or isn’t as a player.
“It’s a lesson in discipline,” he said. “That’s where the press, the fans or sometimes even people internally have to understand — that’s my job as a manager to play it out. That’s the discipline and strength I have to have. I’m a big believer in conviction. So when you do make it, you better be damn sure you are doing it for the right reasons and you are doing it at the right time.”
There was a report from a national writer that insinuated that Wedge and Zduriencik were in dispute about Montero’s loss of playing time in recent weeks. Wedge dismissed such a notion.
“Jack’s been great with me about the lineup,” Wedge said. “We’ve always had discussion about players, who’s doing this and who’s doing that. And he’s always been respectful when it comes to the lineup. We have a rhyme and a reason with everything we do. There’s been no issue with that.”
Going forward, Wedge is going to choose when he plays Montero, while trying to continue his progress.
Even if Montero isn’t in the lineup, that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. At the big league level, a day out of the lineup for a “work day” can be quite beneficial. With Montero, those work days include plenty of work on drilling, refining and ingraining certain catching fundamentals.
“That’s why we give him good work days,” Wedge said. “Those are huge. And for him, a young player, he has to step away from it. It’s such a grind.”
Defensively, Montero has thrown out just one runner in 16 base-stealing attempts this season. Wedge did put some of the blame on some of those steals on the pitchers’ failure to hold runners.
“Jesus has shown himself to throw the ball well,” he said. “He’s thrown out Mike Trout (in 2012); he’s thrown out other great runners. He’s had great times to second base. Sometimes he gets in trouble behind home plate because he gets a little too low and gets on his knees and that’s tough for him. He has terrific arm strength.”
Montero will never look like Johnny Bench or Pudge Rodriguez or even Dan Wilson behind the plate. He isn’t a great athlete. To make up for it, he has to be better with catching techniques.
“Physically, have there been some issues? Yes. Fundamentally, have there been some issues? Yes,” Wedge said. “But you can’t deny the commitment to it.”
Wedge had nothing but praise for Montero’s willingness go focus on defense first even at the detriment of his hitting.
“To his credit, he’s put so much time and effort into his defense,” he said. “He’s really committed to it. It’s not just the physical aspect. It’s the mental aspect of it — calling a game. He’s taken a lot of pride in this. I think he fully understands the responsibilities there. I think it’s taken away from some of his offense.”
But wasn’t Montero was supposed to be an offense-first player?
“I think all catchers need to be defense first,” Wedge said, noting Martinez, his former slugging catcher in Cleveland. “The only reason Victor caught as long has he did, is that he focused on the other side on the defense. Jesus’ carrying tool is going to be offense. But you still have to have that commitment behind the plate. I do appreciate he’s really been committed.”
Montero should still be better offensively even with the focus on defense. Problems with swinging early and often at pitches out of the strike zone, getting pull-happy when his true power is to right-center, have been some of the issues. Montero needs to develop a mature approach at the plate. Hitting coach Dave Hansen is trying to do that.
“Offensively, I think Hansen has done a nice of helping him commit to a better approach during batting practice,” Wedge said. “Has it leaked into the game yet? From time to time, but not consistently.”
So here Montero sits — an unfinished product, who is trying to find his way at the big-league level. Wedge hasn’t given up optimism.
“He’s still young,” he said. “He’s still learning. He’s still trying to figure out the player he is. The player he can be. He’s just not there yet. We are playing it out like we should play out and we’ll see what happens.”