Hickey: Montero needs to be No. 1 catcher

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on May 3, 2012 at 6:31 AM

The Mariners have tough choices in the absence, for four to six weeks, of injured catcher Miguel Olivo.

Like a seasoned politician, Mariner manager Eric Wedge says he will use a combination of veteran John Jaso and rookie Jesus Montero to fill in behind the plate, but avoids specifics.

The club is down to two catchers; outfielder/first baseman Mike Carp was called up Tuesday to take Olivo’s roster spot after the veteran catcher, who hit in eight consecutive games, which included three home runs, was disabled by a right groin strain Monday.

There is some belief Wedge will use a platoon, with Jaso catching against right-handed starting pitchers and Montero against lefties. I hope Wedge won’t go down that road.

Baseball is all about learning and opportunity. If Montero is the catcher of the future, the chance to grow up is upon him. That’s the way it works. When somebody gets hurt, somebody else gets a chance.

This is no time to coddle Montero. This is a time to learn. The Mariners are in a stretch of 36 games in 37 days, so there will be time for both catchers. But it would make more sense to have Montero, 22, get between four and five starts per week behind the plate and let Jaso, 28, pick up the rest.

Why?

Montero needs to learn the pitching staff. He has the only experience catching the Seattle pitchers; Jaso has been strictly a DH. Montero has caught Kevin Millwood (twice) and Hector Noesi (three times, including Tuesday) in addition to a lone start with Felix Hernandez. He hasn’t caught Blake Beavan and Jason Vargas.

It will be well worth watching to see which catcher Wedge goes with Wednesday when Beavan starts against the Rays.

Wedge began the season wanting Montero to focus on a couple of pitchers. But the time has come to catch the entire staff.

Will it put a strain on his improving offense to handle a pitching staff new to him? Maybe not. Montero delivered three singles and a double Tuesday. For the season, he’s been a much better hitter when he’s also playing defense (13-for-24, .542) than he is when he’s strictly a DH (12-for-61, .206).

While that is a small sample size, Montero was 3-for-10 (.300) while behind the plate for the Yankees in a September call-up last season. Being used on defense doesn’t seem to slow his bat.

Those are numbers that invite nurturing. That is done with added playing time.

Wedge, talking with reporters before the game Tuesday, a 3-1 loss, didn’t find Montero's numbers all that surprising.

“It’s not unusual,” Wedge said. “It’s tough to DH. It’s particularly tough for young players to learn how to DH, but that’s something I’ve talked to him about.

“It’s something he’s going to have to understand how to get better with. He has a chance to become a pretty good hitter. It’s something he’s going to have to do from time to time.”

The key words are “from time to time.”

For now, the Mariners are going to need the DH spot to get the recalled Carp into the lineup. He could play first base, but Justin Smoak, despite a hitless Tuesday, doesn’t need to give away plate trips to Carp, who was a struggling .137 hitter at Tacoma.

Carp could play left with Chone Figgins (.206) continuing to flail. But Carp is coming back from a shoulder injury. While he talked blithely with the media about the shoulder being ready to allow him to throw without a problem within a week or so, getting regular time in left field seems optimistic.

One thing is clear. The Mariners' story of the next month is where Montero plays and how he progresses.

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