Hard work does indeed pay off as Jesus Montero will attest.
Montero, the beleaguered 25-year-old former top prospect, returned to the Mariners’ 25-man roster Thursday when the team recalled him from Class AAA and optioned J.A. Happ to Class A Bakersfield.
“It means a lot,” Montero said. “Hard work pays off, that’s what you guys say, right? It’s been awesome. My wife and my family are really happy.
“I’m happy to be here.”
To say Montero has had his ups and downs over his three-plus seasons with Seattle would be stating his recent history mildly. Since coming over to the Mariners as part of a four-player trade in exchange for right-handed pitcher Michael Pineda, Montero has shuttled between Seattle and AAA Tacoma, transitioned from catcher to designated hitter to first base, been suspended 50 games for his connection with Biogenesis and endured an humiliating episode with a team employee at a minor-league stadium last August.
The latter event may, in hindsight, be the watershed moment in Montero’s career. At the time, Montero was floundering as an overweight, below-average defensive first baseman, hitting .286 with 16 home runs and 74 RBI in 97 games with Tacoma. After the incident, Montero was admonished by Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik and sent to Arizona for personal training and counseling.
An offseason training program followed at the Mariners spring training facility in Peoria, AZ where Montero lost upwards of 40 pounds to hit a team-desired weight of 235 pounds by mid-January. When the team reported to the complex for spring training in the final week of February, most of Montero’s teammates and coaches barely recognized him in his new lithe body.
Since then, Montero has played 84 games with Tacoma where he was recently named to the AAA All-Star team. His numbers validate that selection as much as his weight loss has boosted his performance. He has posted a .332 average, .370 on-base percentage and .529 slugging percentage with 15 home runs, a league-leading 68 RBI and even five triples.
The Mariners get Montero at his hottest. Over his last 10 games with the Rainiers, Montero produced a .545 average (24-44) with 11 runs scored, nine extra-base hits and 12 RBI. He is expected to be the designated hitter against left-handed pitchers at least to start according to Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. The Mariners are scheduled to face three consecutive lefties in the final three games of their series with the Angels.
Montero’s defense at first base has improved as well as evidenced by his .992 fielding percentage over 70 games. Tacoma manager Pat Listach has been impressed by Montero’s daily work ethic and believes he is a capable major-league defender at the position.
Bottom line: Montero is ready now.
“Sometimes, for me, I’ve just got to go through things so I can learn. That’s what happens,” said Montero. “It’s been really good what happened to me. I’m not sad, because whatever happened in the past, happens. I’m really happy for that.”
Happ, 32, pitched four innings in the Mariners’ 5-4 loss to the Tigers Wednesday. With over six years of major-league service time, Happ had the ability to refuse the minor-league option. He did not, opting to act in the team’s best interest. At Bakersfield, Happ will presumably continue to pitch on five days rest during the upcoming All-Star break.
The Mariners return to the field on Friday, July 17 at New York. It won’t need a fifth starter until July 21 against Detroit. By rule, Happ would be eligible to return to the team on July 19, 10 days after his optioning.