M’s notebook: Montero starts, bats cleanup

SEATTLE — The Jesus Montero reclamation project spiked upward Saturday when, in his first big-league appearance in more than a year, he batted cleanup for the Mariners against Texas.

“He’s here to hit off left-handers,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I’ve got to put somebody in the four-hole, and there’s a left-hander (Joe Saunders) on the mound.

“I think (Montero) is a better option (than other possibilities). He’s got some power, and maybe he’ll run into something behind Robby (Cano).”

The Mariners recalled Montero, 24, from Class AAA Tacoma prior to Thursday’s series finale against the Yankees. He didn’t play that night, nor Friday in the series opener against the Rangers.

Montero had eight homers and 40 RBI in 59 games for the Rainiers while compiling a .270/.345/.455 slash (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage).

“I’m happy to be back with the team,” he said. “Everybody knows that. I can’t wait to play.”

Montero was viewed as one of the game’s top prospects when the Mariners acquired from the Yankees in a Jan. 20, 2012 trade. After an encouraging rookie season, he slumped badly last year and was optioned to Tacoma.

His season soon spiraled downward.

After missing nearly seven weeks because of a knee injury, Montero received a 50-game suspension for allegedly obtaining performance-enhancing drugs from Biogenesis, a health clinic in Coral Gables, Fla.

Montero then reported for spring training at 40 pounds over his targeted weight and was optioned to Tacoma shortly after minor-league clubs began full-squad workouts.

“As he got in shape,” McClendon said, “the bat speed came back. That was a tough year for him, the previous year, for obvious reasons. I think he’s bouncing back. I think he’s eager to make amends.”

Trade rumors I

The Mariners are among clubs showing interest in right-handed pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, whom the Chicago Cubs are shopping, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The paper also identified Atlanta and Toronto among interested clubs and cited an unidentified “major-league source” as predicting Hammel would end up with the Mariners.

The Chicago Tribune reported the Mariners showed interest earlier this year in Samardzija and noted their depth in starting pitchers make them an enticing trade partner.

The Cubs want two high-end pitching prospects for Samardzija and would presumably demand either Taijuan Walker or James Paxton be included in any deal along with another prospect.

The reports were downplayed by Mariners’ officials.

Samardzija, 29, is 2-6 this season despite a 2.77 ERA in 14 starts. He is making $5.345 million and will be eligible after the season for arbitration. Samardzija is on track to qualify for free agency after the 2015 season.

Hammel, 31, is making $6 million but would likely come at a cheaper price, in part because he will be a free agent after the season. He is 6-4 this season with a 2.81 ERA in 13 starts.

Trade rumors II

The rumor mill also links the Mariners to a player being shopped by Chicago’s other club: shortstop Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox.

(It’s getting to be that time of year. The draft is over. The non-waiver trading deadline is less than seven weeks away. Clubs are concentrating on scouting one another for possible deals. Expect rumors to proliferate.)

Still, this one makes some sense: Ramirez, 32, is a right-handed bat — something the Mariners covet — and is enjoying a renaissance season with seven homers, 36 RBI and a .309 average in 69 games.

His .344 on-base percentage, if maintained, would be the best of his seven-year career.

But … adding Ramirez would require a payroll boost. He is making $9.5 million this season and is guaranteed $10 million in 2015. His deal has a club option for $10 million, with a $1 million buyout, for 2016.

King’s tears

A 1-0 loss on Friday marked the 37th start in Felix Hernandez’s career when he’s allowed one or fewer runs without recording a victory.

If you have to ask, yes, that’s the most of any active pitcher.

Hernandez also has a 7-4 career record in 1-0 games. Friday was also the 58th time in his career when he’s pitched at least eight innings while allowing one or no runs.

Train giveaways

Saturday was “Felix Hernandez King’s Court Train Car Night,” which meant the first 20,000 through the gates got a free bright-yellow model railroad car.

It marked the 15th train-related giveaway since 2000. Past promotions included:

The Edgar Martinez Gar Car (2002), Bret Boone Boonie Box Car (2003), Ichiro Express Engine (2004), Adrian Beltre A-Train (2006), J.J. Putz Flamethrower Express (2008) and the Justin Smoakamotive (2012).

The Mariners entered the night with a 5-9 record on train-giveaway nights.

Choi promoted

First baseman Ji-Man Choi is back with Class AAA Tacoma after just four games at Class AA Jackson following his return from a 50-game suspension for testing positive for steroids.

Choi, 23, was 3-for-11 with four walks for the Generals and hit a homer Friday in a doubleheader sweep over Jacksonville (Marlins). He batted .394 in 10 games for Tacoma prior to his suspension.

The Mariners also promoted lefty reliever Stephen Kohlscheen to Tacoma from Jackson. Kohlscheen, 25, was 1-1 with six saves and a 2.25 ERA in 23 games for the Generals.

Minor details

Jackson right-hander Victor Sanchez was picked by Baseball America as its Prospect Pitcher of the Day for Friday after pitching a two-hit, seven-inning shutout in a 6-0 victory over Jacksonville.

Sanchez, 19, is 3-2 with a 4.06 ERA in nine starts. He entered the season ranked as the Mariners’ No. 7 prospect but missed a month because of forearm fatigue.

Looking back

It was four years ago Sunday — June 15, 2010 — that baseball witnessed something it hadn’t seen in 68 years when two players who had at least 5,000 career at-bats and a .330 career average faced one another.

It occurred at Busch Stadium in St. Louis when Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (.333) and Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (.332) took part in the Cardinals’ 4-2 victory.

The last such pair to face one another occurred in 1942: Joe (Ducky) Medwick of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Paul (Big Poison) Waner of the Boston Braves. Both were later elected to the Hall of Fame.

On tap

The Mariners and Rangers conclude their three-game series at 1:10 p.m. Sunday at Safeco Field. Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (4-3 with a 2.79 ERA) will start against Texas right-hander Nick Martinez (1-3 and 4.63).

Root Sports will carry the game.

The Mariners open a four-game series Monday against San Diego. The first two games are at Safeco Field before the clubs head south for games Wednesday and Thursday in San Diego.

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