It wasn't supposed to go like this for Jesus Montero.
He was labeled the can't miss prospect. Well, at least as a hitter that is. Crazy names like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Piazza, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez were thrown around by those speaking of his abilities. His bat was so good -- earning 70 grades from many scouts in both power and hitting ability -- that his club was going to find a place for him to play, be it catcher, designated hitter or maybe even first base. He raked in his September call up for the New York Yankees in 2011, hitting .328/.406/.590, crushing four home runs and showing that rare trait of natural plus opposite field power. He caught only three games for New York in that 18 game audition, serving as the club's DH the rest of the time. But that bat.
That winter he would find himself traded to Seattle for Michael Pineda. It seemed like a natural fit; one of the best hitting prospects in baseball for perhaps the most hitting-starved organization in baseball. Montero caught a lot more with the Mariners in that rookie season, logging nearly 500 innings behind the plate. And while the defense wasn't good, it wasn't a complete unmitigated disaster all the time. He was a catcher that you could live with back there -- if the bat came through as expected.
But Montero hit just .260/.298/.386 in 553 plate appearances. 20 doubles, 15 home runs and 29 walks were the uninspiring totals. He hit very well on the road (.295/.330/.438), very well against left-handers (.322/.366/.463) and better in the 2nd half (.278/.318/.398) than the 1st (.245/.281/.376), but this wasn't a future Hall of Fame bat that he was showing. Yes, he was just 22 and was put in the unenviable position of being counted on as a run producer in the middle of the lineup as a rookie, but he seemed to be overly aggressive and without any sort of plan at the plate for much of the season.
Nevertheless, the club made moves during the winter of 2012 that all but assured that Montero would be the number one catcher in 2013. Perhaps in part because he hit so much better when behind the plate (.310/.343/.498) than he did as the DH (.226/.265/.309). His offensive demands would be less stressful this season it seemed, hopefully allowing the youngster to take off and grow naturally -- both as a hitter and as a catcher. But the growth didn't happen. There was still no plan, no noticeable approach to speak of. Just swinging at everything, getting himself out.
All of the strengths he showed as a rookie seem to be gone as he hasn't hit on the road (.200/.234/.300) or against lefties (.167/.265/.267), and the club has only DH'd him once (he went 0-3 with a walk), putting him in what appeared to be the best position possible to succeed based on what he showed in 2012. And after starting eight of the club's first 11 games, Montero only started only half of the next 22, obviously falling out of favor of manager Eric Wedge due to his lack of an approach offensively and his mental lapses defensively.
That means that, for now at least, Kelly Shoppach is the everyday catcher for the Mariners. Sucre is a 25-year-old, right-handed hitting, good defender that has hit well in Tacoma (.302/.373/.321) in limited time and who was a Southern League All-Star in 2012 for Jackson, but he isn't a long-term answer as a starter in the major leagues and he isn't being brought up to challenge Shoppach. But what does it mean for Montero?
As you probably remember, the Mariners top hitting prospect and catcher of the future, one Mike Zunino, is the primary catcher in Tacoma. Zunino has started 33 of the Rainiers' 47 games (all at catcher) and after a rough patch of adjustment is starting to come back around offensively. Zunino's future with the Mariners is behind the plate, meaning that Zunino is not going to learn to DH with this new alignment. Jesus Montero is. He may still catch twice every 10 days or so, but I think we can say fairly confidently that for all intents and purposes Montero's starting catching duties -- at least as a member of the Seattle Mariners organization -- are now behind him.
And so the long anticipated transformation into "Full-Time Designated Hitter" is now officially underway for Montero. He has a lot to learn about performing in that role, as he has shown in his time there at the big leagues, and it isn't as simple as it may seem. And because of the roster makeup of the M's at the big league level, this could be a long stay for Montero. So things aren't going the way that they were supposed to for Montero. But Jesus needs to grasp onto the idea that he no longer has another option. The inevitable move to DH starts now for him, and it starts back in Triple-A.
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