The Seattle Mariners were aggressive this offseason in adding offense to their lineup. One of the repercussions of those moves is that the team was left with just one catcher on their 40-man roster in Jesus Montero. After signing Ronny Paulino to a minor league deal with an invite to major league camp and with Mike Zunino still developing in the minor leagues, will Seattle settle on Montero as their primary catcher?
When the Mariners traded for Montero from the New York Yankees, the general scouting report was that the young catching prospect had the tools to be an excellent hitter at the major league level, but lacked the defensive ability to play every day behind the plate. He could get the occasional spot start at catcher, but would be better utilized as a designated hitter.
And that’s how the M’s used him in 2012. Last season, Montero appeared in 135 games and played catcher in just 56 of them. The rest of the time, he held down the DH spot and did it well, becoming one of the leaders of the team offensively batting .260/.298/.386 with 15 home runs and 62 RBI. The plan, according to the team before they added players, was to get Montero some work at first base, further transitioning him away from the catcher position.
But now he’s not only been forced back into being a catcher, he’s going to be THE catcher for the team. Kendrys Morales is going to be the primary DH and players like Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Michael Morse will need starts there as well. That doesn’t leave a lot of opportunities for Montero to be the DH and with a career minor-leaguer/major league backup in Paulino as the other option, the team can’t afford to not have him catch.
But is he ready to shoulder that load? His position coach, Jeff Datz, sees some positives in Montero’s game behind the plate. The 23-year old has “great hands” and an exceptional arm to gun down runners trying to steal. He’s also shown that he can call a surprisingly good game for a catcher with limited experience.
However, there are still plenty of things Montero needs to work on. He can quickly fall into bad habits, like dropping to one knee which hurts his ability to get off a good throw, and can struggle to keep pitches properly framed in the strike zone. Datz praises the promise and potential of Montero, but admits that he still has a long way to go to be a consistent defensive presence behind the plate.
Will he be able to make up all that ground between now and Opening Day? Probably not, but the team needs him to at least make major strides between his rookie year last season and his sophomore campaign in 2013. The team is without many options if Montero fails to take control of the catcher position. Paulino, 31, spent most of last season at Triple-A Norfolk, though he did play 20 games with the Baltimore Orioles at the major league level. He’s got plenty of experience, but limited upside for Seattle in the present.
That means if Montero fails as a catcher, the team will be forced to take action. Either the M’s will respond by calling up Zunino ahead of schedule and throwing him in the deep end to see if he swims or making a move to bring in another catcher during the season. The most likely trade piece in that scenario would be Justin Smoak who could bring in a nice piece and open up first base for Morales to take the field allowing Montero to become the primary DH.
It’s a huge gamble for Seattle, dropping Montero behind the plate to be the man before he’s proven that he is the man. Will he sink or swim? We’ll find out soon enough. Pitchers and catchers report February 13.