PHOENIX – Ringing in the new season with a new team the most painful and improbable way imaginable …
Seattle Mariners catcher Jesus Montero, the key acquisition in the trade that sent promising starter Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees, was struck in the jaw by consecutive foul balls in the fifth inning of the first game of spring training. The second shot felled him as if he'd been struck by a Floyd Mayweather Jr. haymaker.
Montero dropped straight to his back and remained motionless for a few moments. After speaking to a trainer, he opened his eyes and squinted into the Arizona sun, gingerly pulled himself to his feet and wobbled toward the dugout, done for the day.
Welcome to the woeful Mariners, where devastating blows are frequent although rarely this unexpected or literal.
Montero's first day on the job had been going as expected. Only moments earlier he'd trotted around the bases after hitting a home run – the Mariners' fourth in the first five innings against the host Oakland Athletics.
A few innings before that he'd dropped an easy foul popup. The book on Montero is good-hit, no-field; his ability to take fouls to the jaw heretofore untested. A new page can be added, with no revisions necessary to what's already on paper.
Montero, 22, is a dynamic hitter who excelled in 61 at-bats with the Yankees last September and posted an .801 OPS in five minor-league seasons. But he's a suspect catcher whose upside might be to become the best DH since Edgar Martinez. John Jaso, who hustled in from the bullpen to replace Montero, could catch more often this season.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge wasn't in a mood to coddle Montero afterward, saying rather curtly, "He's OK, he's fine." Wedge made it clear Montero hadn't suffered a concussion, and his reaction to the catcher leaving the game bordered on annoyance.
"He got hit in the same place twice, so after the second one, we got him out of there," Wedge said. "I've been back there. You get hit like that. It's just unusual to have it happen two times in a row."
For the record, Wedge caught a grand total of six games in the major leagues and batted .233 in 86 at-bats before getting 86'd as a player.
The A's cued Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," an inning later, and only the public address operator knows if that was coincidental or another, er, shot at Montero.
The Mariners went directly from the dugout to their team bus to return to Peoria, Ariz., and Montero was unavailable for comment. But let's not twist his misfortune into an omen portending a dire 2012 for the Mariners: There are plenty of other reasons to do that, beginning with the trade that brought Montero from the Yankees for Pineda, who posted a 3.74 ERA and a WHIP of 1.10 in 28 starts as a 22-year-old rookie last season.
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Who gives up a No. 2 starter under team control for five more seasons in exchange for an unproven catcher? The Mariners might be the only ones in the room. They didn't sign a top free agent, not because they don't have cash but because players good enough to have choices are wary of Seattle.
They see how Richie Sexson disappeared, how Adrian Beltre became ordinary, how Chone Figgins disintegrated. In fact, the Mariners' rationale for dealing Pineda for a potentially big bat was born of being unable to get one any other way.
They've tried through trade. They've tried to draft and develop. They suffered a devastating tragedy when promising outfielder Greg Halman was stabbed to death in the Netherlands last November.
Maybe a few players are ready to deliver. Four Mariners hit home runs Friday in addition to Montero, including three big, strong outfielders:
• Carlos Peguero (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) has developed slowly since signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2005. He's hit 97 minor-league homers but probably will begin the season at Triple-A unless he has a tremendous spring. Mike Carp, Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson are ahead of or equal to him on the depth chart.
• Mike Saunders (6-4, 225) has developed as slowly as Peguero, batting .196 in 572 big-league at-bats since being drafted in 2004. Saunders has a shot at playing time in center field because starter Franklin Gutierrez tore a pectoral muscle in his chest this week and will miss the rest of spring training.
• Johermyn Chavez (6-3, 225) was acquired from Toronto two years ago. Like many Mariners prospects, he put up huge numbers at Class-A High Desert – a noted launching pad – but crashed to earth in Double-A last year, batting .216 with 13 homers in 510 at-bats.
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Any of them might be a better bet than A's cleanup hitter Manny Ramirez. His long dreadlocks are back and he has 555 career home runs, but he isn't likely to hit another five.
Ramirez is ineligible to play until late May because he must serve a 50-game suspension for PED use, yet he was the DH in the first game of spring. In the first inning, after Coco Crisp drove in Jemile Weeks to record the first run of Cactus League play, Ramirez had his turn.
He mustered a first of spring as well … the first 6-4-3 double play. He also grounded out in his second at-bat, both balls hit sharply and up the middle. The results weren't good but the swings weren't discouraging.
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The A's, like the Mariners, are desperately seeking answers in spring to questions not adequately addressed during the offseason. These teams will battle for third place – and a distant third at that – in the AL West behind the Rangers and Angels, two teams whose punches will be far more powerful than any foul balls to the jaw.
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