The Seattle Mariners had it all planned out.
Youngster Jesus Montero would assume the catching duties this season after spending 56 games behind the plate in 2012. Sure, it would be a lot of responsibility for a 23-year-old with just 153 games of big league experience. But the Mariners figured it was time to see whether Montero would live up to his expectations as a slugger and progress as a defensive catcher.
To help, the Mariners acquired a veteran backup, Kelly Shoppach, to serve as a defensive replacement, a sometime starter and a mentor.
But on Tuesday, those best laid plans seemed to hit a snag when Montero’s name was linked to the performance enhancing drug scandal surrounding the South Florida anti-aging clinic BioGenesis.
While Montero maintains he has no association with the clinic or its owner, Anthony Bosch, the Mariners know that Major League Baseball is investigating the situation, and the team has to be wary of possibility that Montero could be suspended.
But until then, the job is Montero’s to lose.
Manager Eric Wedge used three catchers last season with no real success. In fairness, none – Montero, John Jaso and Miguel Olivo – had great defensive reputations. They did little to change that in 2012 as Seattle led the American League in passed balls with 20.
Wedge went with Olivo as the starter early in the season. He had a strong arm to throw out runners but was poor at blocking balls
and receiving pitches. On offense, he struck out a little too much, didn’t take quite enough walks and didn’t hit as many home runs as expected.
He started 22 of the first 23 games, hitting .210 (17-for-81) with three homers and seven RBI. He struck out 18 times and had a meager .229 on-base percentage.
On April 30, Olivo suffered a strained groin and went on the disabled list. When he returned on May 23, Wedge had decided to look toward the future and went more with a Montero- Jaso platoon. Olivo would start just 58 more games, finishing with a .222 batting average with 12 homers and 29 RBI.
Neither Montero nor Jaso were particularly outstanding behind the plate, but both showed glimpses of being better than average. Montero caught a six-pitcher no-hitter against the Dodgers on June 8. He also was one of only four catchers to throw out the Angels’ Mike Trout on a stolen base attempt – and did it twice. Jaso caught Felix Hernandez’s perfect game on Aug. 15.
Both players, however, were supposed to make up for their defensive weaknesses with their bats.
Jaso did that, hitting .276 (81-for-294) with 19 doubles, 10 home runs and 50 RBI. He led the Mariners in batting average, on-base percentage (.394) and slugging percentage (.456), and also showed a knack for getting clutch hits — including seven game-winning RBI after the seventh inning. He ranked second in the American League in hitting with runners in scoring position – a .378 average (28-for-74) with six doubles, four homers, 40 RBI and a .622 slugging percentage.
The Mariners acquired Montero from the Yankees in January of 2012 for his offensive potential. He showed hints of it, hitting .260 (134-for-515) with 20 doubles, 15 home runs and 62 RBI. He was particularly good against left-handed pitching, hitting .322 (57-for-177) with seven doubles, six home runs, 22 RBI and an .830 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
But Montero showed a lack of discipline at the plate that got worse. He struck out 99 times and drew just 29 walks.
Because the Mariners traded Jaso to the Oakland A’s in a three-way deal that brought back Michael Morse, the reins have been handed to Montero.
“It’s his job,” Wedge said. “He knows he’s coming here to catch. It’ll ultimately be my decision in regard to how much he does catch, but we’re going to ask him to catch as much as we feel he can to go out there and perform the way he’s capable of performing.”
Montero was asked to work on his agility and footwork during the offseason while trimming his body fat and adding strength. He went to personalized training to work on his speed, running form and quickness.
“Everybody knows I’m still slow,” he joked with fans at a question-and-answer session during the Mariners’ FanFest in late January. “I worked on running techniques and running better. It could help me to be a little faster.”
But to Wedge, a former catcher, it wasn’t about athleticism. Montero has shown he can execute the proper fundamentals of blocking, receiving and throwing. His issue is maintaining focus behind the plate from inning to inning and game to game.
“It’s more on the mental than the physical side of things,” Wedge said. “I don’t have any doubt he can handle it from a talent perspective, that he can handle the role fundamentally. But being so young and inexperienced, it’s the mental grind. We ask a great deal of our catchers here.”
Shoppach is pretty steady behind the plate. In 2011 with TampaBay, he led all catchers in the AL with a 41 percent caught-stealing average. He spent part of last season with the Boston Red Sox, playing in 46 games. He also played 27 games with the Mets. In the combined stints, he hit .233 (51-for-219) with eight homers and 27 RBI. He will back up Montero, playing every third or fourth day and also serve as a late-inning defensive replacement.
For extra depth, the Mariners signed major league veteran Ronny Paulino to a minor league deal. He will likely be with Triple-A Tacoma.
The Mariners’ catcher-in-waiting is Mike Zunino, who was drafted with the third pick of last year’s draft out of the University of Florida. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Mariners were able to sign Zunino early and get him playing in the minor leagues. He had success at every level – Class A Everett (.373 batting average, 10 homers, 35 RBI in 29 games), Double-A Jackson (.333 batting average, three homers, 8 RBI in 15 games) and the Arizona Fall League (.288, two homers, 10 RBI in 19 games.).
There are some who think Zunino could start in Tacoma and be up with the big league club by June or July. That might be rushing things. While Zunino is talented, the defensive responsibilities for a catcher are immense. He will also face a different level of pitching at Triple-A. Even Mariners minor league coordinator Chris Gwynn is trying to be patient and realistic with Zunino.
“He’s definitely well ahead of most college players who come out,’’ Gwynn said. “Receiving-wise, I think he still has stuff to learn. Offensively, he’s pretty good now. But he’s only had 160 to 180 at-bats in the minors. That makes me nervous, in the sense that are we really preparing him for when he gets here? He still has stuff to learn both ways, but catching is such an important position, you need to make sure he’s well-seasoned before he shows up here.”
Behind Zunino is John Hicks, a former fourth-round pick out of the University of Virginia. Hicks is rated as the best defensive catcher in the organization. He’s has a strong arm and is a good receiver. He also hit .312 with 15 homers and 79 RBI for Single-A High Desert.