On Tuesday afternoon, Jesus Montero took a big step towards climbing out of the hole in which he'd all but buried himself. Making his first major-league start at first base, he hit his first homer for the Mariners in more than a year, helping them down the Padres 6-1.
With one out, one on and the Mariners down 1-0 in the second inning, Montero came to bat against Padres lefty Eric Stults. Ahead 2-1 in the count, he pounced on a 79 mph changeup that was low but right in the middle of the plate:
Via ESPN, the home run measured just 358 feet, but it was more than enough for Montero, whose last major-league dinger came on May 8, 2013. Robinson Cano added a two-run homer off Stults in the fifth, just his fourth of the year, and Kyle Seager capped the scoring with a two-run double off Tim Stauffer in the seventh. The win lifted the Mariners' record to 37-34, 5 1/2 games out of first place headed into Tuesday night's slate.
Though Montero is just 24 years old, it feels like a lifetime ago when he debuted for the Yankees and hit a scorching .328/.406/.590 with four homers in 69 plate appearances over the 2011 season's final month. On the heels of two straight seasons ranked among the game's top five prospects by Baseball America, he appeared to be a star in the making, but by the time he reached the majors, the Yankees' confidence in his ability to stick at catcher had eroded. In Jan. 2012, they shocked the baseball world by sending Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi to Seattle for pitcher Michael Pineda and pitching prospect Jose Campos.
Montero hit just .260/.298/.386 as a rookie with the Mariners in 2012. Though he boppeed 15 home runs, his power was offset by a lack of plate discipline (99/25 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio) and appalling work behind the plate (17 percent caught stealing rate, −11.9 Framing Runs according to Baseball Prospectus). After slumping to .208/.264/.327 with three home runs in 110 PA over the first seven weeks of the 2013 season, he was sent to Triple-A Tacoma with an eye towards converting him to first base, a position he had never played in his professional career. His season soon became a lost cause, as he he tore a meniscus in his left knee, requiring surgery that cost him seven weeks, and then was suspended 50 games for his connection to the Biogenesis clinic.
The Mariners appeared to crowd Montero out of the picture when they went about their winter's work. While still holding out hope that switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak might live up to his own billing as a top prospect, they signed both righty Corey Hart and lefty Logan Morrison as free agents, thereby closing off the DH route to their lineup. Montero didn't endear himself to the team brass by showing up to camp 40 pounds overweight, at which point general manager Jack Zduriencik bluntly declared the team, "[had] zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone.”
On the heels of four straight losing seasons with fourth-place finishes in the AL West, the M's have surprised thus far, but Smoak (.208/.282/.361 for an 84 OPS+), Hart (.209/.295/.353 for an 85 OPS+) and Morrison (.150/.227/.250 for a 37 OPS+) have all stunk on ice, and each has spent time on the disabled list. Morrison, who was limited to 178 games in 2012-2013 due to right knee woes that culminated in surgery to repair his patellar tendon, missed eight weeks early in the season due to a hamstring strain. On Sunday, after popping out in a key situation, he slammed his bat against the dugout wall in anger. His maple bat shattered and a piece struck him above his left eye, requiring five stitches to close the cut. Hart, who had DHed 34 times but made just three appearances in the field after missing all of last season due to microfracture surgery on his right knee, hit the DL on May 19 due to a hamstring strain. Smoak, who started 58 of the team's first 60 games at first base, went on the DL on June 10 with a left quad strain that had lingered for a week.
Sent to Tacoma to start the year, Montero hit .270/.345/.455 with eight homers but made a whopping nine errors in 42 games before being recalled last Friday to fill the roster spot of Michael Saunders, who joined the crowd on the DL due to right shoulder inflammation. Though he had gone 2-for-7 in a pair of starts at DH prior to Tuesday, manager Lloyd McClendon didn't exactly sound enthusiastic over the prospect of playing him in the field, but with a lefty on the mound, he had little choice. Via The Seattle Times's Adam Jude:
"Well,” he said, “we got a left-hander going, we need a first baseman and I’m not playing a left-handed first baseman. That’s why it works.”
McClendon was asked what gives him confidence that Montero can play first for the first time. “I never said I had confidence. I said I need a first baseman. He’s available and that’s who we’re going to put out there.”
…“It’s OK,” McClendon said of Montero’s swing. “It’s just been OK.”
Ouch. For what it's worth, Montero didn't make any errors on Tuesday, and he certainly did a bit to endear himself to his new manager. Via MLB.com's Greg Johns:
"I really wanted a three-run homer, but he gave us two," McClendon said with a laugh. "He's strong, no question about it. It was actually a hit-and-run with the ball up in the zone and he's so strong, he was able to muscle it out."
…"Obviously we've got some injuries and he's got an opportunity to get some at-bats… There's nothing like two-run homers though to have the manager write your name in the lineup the next day. So we'll see. He just needs to keep grinding it out and keep paving a path for himself."
Montero has a long way to go before he lives up to the hopes that prospect mavens once had for him. For the moment, paving a path to playing time is a big enough task.