Stars of the AFL: Miguel Montero

When you play in 85 straight games behind the plate during the regular season, you've certainly put durability issues behind you, and when you hit nearly .350 during that stretch you have to figure you're going to be in the everyday lineup, no matter where you're playing. That's not the case for Miguel Montero, and he's not very happy about it.

"I hope everybody's happy, I wanted to be here, and the Diamondbacks wanted me to be here, but I love playing in Venezuela, and my club down there wants me to play, so hopefully this is the best situation for everybody."

Miguel Montero says this with a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, 'What are you gonna do?'

The Diamondbacks made it clear they wanted Montero to get the experience of playing in the elite Arizona Fall League this year, but he already had a commitment to his 'other' team, in Venezuela. It's not uncommon, and in fact it's often encouraged, for minor leaguers to play Winter Ball, but Montero had already signed his contract, and his Venezuelan team had dibs on the young catcher. After weeks of negotiation, a compromise was worked out. Montero would indeed be able to play in the AFL, though only until the 20th of October, before he headed down south to honor his Venezuelan contract.

It's not just about loyalty either. Montero feels his Winter Ball time has helped him immensely.

"You're playing with big leaguers, you're playing with top prospects, the competition is just about as good there as it is here," Montero says, "Double-A, Triple-A guys, and it's even more competitive, because the object here is to develop, the object there is to win."

Montero's is happy he's in the AFL, but he admits he frustrated as well, for the same reasons he was in Tennessee.

"I don't like playing once a week," Montero says, "but when I got here they told me (Braves prospect Jarrod) Saltalamacchia was going to be the priority catcher here, so that's what I've been doing."

He minces no words, he's happy to be here but...

"If I was in Venezuela I could be playing everyday, and I think the way you get better is by playing."

It's not his fault he's in such high demand, but then again, maybe it is. After four solid, if unspectacular years in the Diamondbacks system, this 22 year old catcher had a break out season in 2005, dominating the Hi-A California League in the first half with the Lancaster JetHawks. Montero at one point in time led all the minor leagues in batting average, runs scored, RBI, extra base hits and slugging percentage, earning himself a spot in the Futures Game this year in Detroit. On July 8th he finished his game in Lancaster and packed his bags for Detroit, and just before leaving he got the call that he might want to pack for more than just the weekend.

Montero wouldn't be returning to Lancaster after the Futures Game, he'd be moving up to the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, and unfortunately for him, the transition wouldn't be as smooth as perhaps he hoped.

After putting up incredible numbers in Hi-A (.349/24/82 in 355 at bats) started his Double-A career off with a bang, going 3-3 with a home run in his first game, but struggled overall, finishing the season with a .250 average and just two homers in Tennessee. Montero admits that the jump was a big one, but he feels there's another explanation for his struggles.

"It's the biggest jump in baseball, no doubt," Montero said as he came into the dugout from warming a starter up before a recent Arizona Fall League game, "but I think a lot of the problem with me was the time off I got. I'd started 85 straight games at Lancaster, and then I left, went to the Futures Game, played a couple innings there, and then had another day off and then started at Tennessee. I had a good first game there, but then I got four days off because of the All-Star break, and I think I just got cooled off."

Still his season totals dwarfed any previous numbers he put up. He combined to hit .326 with 26 homers and 95 RBI in 2005. Previously he'd hit .300 only once in his second go around in Rookie ball in 2003, his career high in homers was 11 in Lo-A South Bend in '04 and he'd never driven in even 60 RBI until this season. All in all, it was an eye opening year for Montero, who elevated himself into the top catching prospect in the organization.

One of the things that Montero didn't struggle with in Double-A was his defense. Though he's still raw, scouts and coaches agree that Montero has all the tools to be an exceptional defensive catcher, and Montero found that while the better pitching in Double-A was tougher to hit, it was easier to catch.

"Everybody up there has better command, with all their pitches, and the strike zone is a little bigger, so it's easier to catch a game there, and it's easier to call a game there. You just don't have to worry about pitchers not making their pitches, so you call what the best pitch is in the count, not necessarily what you know the pitcher can throw over the plate."

And at least thus far, Montero is making his case that perhaps he, and not Saltalamacchia, should be that priority catcher. Montero has appeared in four games thus far, but only in his last two has he actually made his way to the plate. In those two games, he's hitting .455 (5-11) with two homers and seven RBI. He's besting Saltalamacchia in every category, despite getting nearly half the at bats.

"I'm just playing hard when I can, and learning what I can. The coaches here are great, and they are working with me a lot," he shrugs again, "I just want to get somewhere I can use what I'm learning everyday."

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