GOODYEAR, Ariz. – There are certain truths in baseball. The ball weighs 5¼ ounces. Ninety feet separate the bases. And Jesus Montero is a dreadful, wretched, miserable excuse for a catcher. Enough scouts, executives and professional baseball men, after all, have said so that this opinion has morphed into an aphorism: Montero behind the plate is the LOLcat of baseball.
I wanted to see how reputation and truth collided Tuesday. Montero was catching a full nine innings for the Seattle Mariners, who acquired him from the New York Yankees for Michael Pineda this offseason in one of the most ballyhooed trades in years: kid for kid, upside for upside, risk for risk.
Almost all of Montero's uncertainty centers around his acumen behind home plate. His bat is special. Montero hits with rare power to the opposite field, the sort of right-handed inside-out stroke that leads to superlatives and exclamation points on scouting reports – the same reports that spend equal time pointing out his faults.
Before Tuesday's game, I asked a pair of veteran scouts who saw Montero at Triple-A and with the Yankees last season their thoughts on him defensively. The reports fell in line with popular thinking.
Scout 1: "[Poor] overall receiving skills. Lacks good footwork. Erratic with accuracy throwing."
Scout 2: "I don't like how he calls a game and how he throws. He doesn't move well either."
In other words: Montero is a 22-year-old designated hitter. That is the main reason the Yankees traded him: They didn't believe he was an everyday catcher, either. The team had signed him for $1.6 million out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old and watched him grow into one of the best hitters in the minor leagues. The Yankees haven't developed an everyday player since Brett Gardner in 2008, and the last positional star they grew was Robinson Cano, who arrived in 2005. Pineda's top-of-the-rotation potential and Montero's supposed clumsiness at catcher fit too well for the Yankees to say no.
Seattle, meanwhile, didn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about Montero's defense. That bat – the knees-bent stance, the scary-quick wrists, the all-fields juice – played anywhere, even at Safeco Field, where the Mariners have struggled to score runs for four years. They'd work out the defense as time went on.
When Montero arrived at spring training, he met with manager Eric Wedge and third-base coach Jeff Datz. Wedge caught for nine years in the major and minor leagues. Same with Datz. They would tutor Montero, give him tips, ease him into the job. The responsibility of calling games, of melding with 12-man pitching staffs, of squatting so long that knees lock up and backs tighten and bodies age faster than a president in office, these are duties that can consume anyone.
"I love it," Montero said.
Minutes after the Mariners wrapped up an 8-1 win, Montero stripped off his shin guards, chest protector and mask. He said he has caught since he was 4 years old and can't fathom not doing it. Catching is part of his baseball identity. He's OK with the Mariners' plan to catch Miguel Olivo most of the time, giving Montero about one-third of the games behind the plate and the rest at DH, as long as he can transition into full-time duty next season.
I asked him if he thought he was good enough defensively to do that.
"I don't know," he said. "What do you think?"
I am no professional scout, I said, but I thought he looked fine. And when I asked a pro scout sitting behind the plate, he agreed: "Better than he's been."
For one, Montero's pop time – the number of seconds from when the ball hits his glove to when it reaches second base on a throw – was 1.9, a very respectable number. The stopwatch reading came when Montero threw out Brandon Phillips in the first inning.
"It's not easy to make a good throw there every time," Montero said. And that, of course, is part of the problem. For every 1.9 he pops, there may be a 2.0 or 2.1, and those fractions of a second make the difference between catcher and DH. Scouts believe catching skills are among the most difficult to learn, which means Montero's growth could depend more on his conditioning – he's always teetered on the edge of lumpy at 6-foot-3 – helping enhance what's already there.
When the Mariners head to Tokyo this week for exhibition games that precede their season-opening series March 28-29 against the Oakland Athletics, Montero will spend most of his time at DH – a bit begrudgingly. He doesn't want whatever progress came this spring – the scout said he noticed better footwork, though Montero's receiving remained shaky – to atrophy as the season starts.
"He's hungry to be back there," Wedge said. "He's a good worker. We're always looking to get better. He's done a great job this spring. And we've got every reason to believe he's going to be an everyday catcher."
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If he can, the Mariners almost certainly will win the trade. A great designated hitter is a valuable commodity, sure, though one that can come from any position and thus isn't exactly a rare find. A great-hitting catcher, on the other hand? Well, an oft-used comparable for Montero, because of his incredible bat and not-so-incredible defense, is Mike Piazza, a certain Hall of Famer.
And while this is not to enshrine Montero as a first-ballot no-doubter, the point is more that if bad defense is tolerated, then certainly Montero can get by with being mediocre, especially when beyond Mike Napoli (suspect defensively), Matt Wieters (excellent), Alex Avila (average), Miguel Montero (average), Brian McCann (slightly below average) and Carlos Santana (slightly below average), it's tough to name a catcher with anywhere near the offensive promise of Montero.
"I just want to show the people I can catch," Montero said. "I try to block balls. I try to make good throws. I try to do the best for the pitchers every time."
Trying and doing are often incompatible, and as Montero's career blossoms, the baseball world will watch with great interest to see if the two can intersect, if truth separates from reputation, if dreadful and wretched and miserable are but adjectives of the past. If Jesus Montero, it turns out, can be the last one laughing.
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