UPDATE: The Mariners announced the roster move of sending Jesus Montero to Tacoma, but did not announce any corresponding roster moves yet. They will do so tomorrow.
On the heels of a six-game losing streak and a 2-7 road trip, the Seattle Mariners will make an expected and needed roster move sometime today.
Catcher Jesus Montero will be sent to Triple-A Tacoma, while catcher Jesus Sucre will be selected from the Rainiers. Double-A back-up catcher Brandon Bantz, who was serving as the starter in Jackson after John Hicks suffered a groin injury and went on the DL, is already headed to Tacoma to serve as Mike Zunino's backup.
With three catchers in Tacoma, and Zunino garnering the bulk of the playing time, it appears the Mariners may have finally taken a step back from the idea that Montero will be catcher at the big league level.
What position will Montero play in Tacoma? Well, he figures to see plenty of time at designated hitter and some time at first base. Zunino is the catcher of the future, so his playing time should not be affected.
Montero's demotion to Triple-A seemed to be more likely with each passing day and each failed at-bat. While much of the focus has been on his defense – and his struggles to catch at a serviceable level in the big leagues – it's Montero's hitting that has been his biggest issue.
As one of the top prospects in baseball a few years ago, it was a given that Montero would never be a great defensive catcher. His lack of athleticism, his size and fundamental flaws seemed too much to overcome to become even an above average defensive catcher. But his hitting, in particular his raw power to all fields, was supposed to help offset those defensive shortcomings.
But the Mariners have yet to see that offensive prowess since acquiring him in a trade for Michael Pineda last offseason. A year ago, he showed hints of offensive productivity, hitting .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBI. He struggled for periods and his impatience and the plate and lack of an approach were an issue. He struck out 99 times in and had just 29 walks, posting a .298 on-base percentage to go with a .386 slugging percentage.
This season, Montero seems to have regressed. Named the starting catcher before spring training, he lost the job less than a month into the season, and began splitting time with veteran Kelly Shoppach. Montero struggled badly at the plate, showing even worse of an approach than a year ago. And the numbers reflect it. He is seeing just 3.39 pitches per at-bat. The league average is 3.85.
He is hitting .208 (21-for-101) with just five extra base hits and nine RBI. He has 21 strikeouts out and just eight walks with a .264 on-base percentage and a .327 slugging percentage.
This isn't likely to be a brief stint in Tripl- A. Barring injury at the big league level, Montero will be there until figure things out offensively - it's where his value is as a player. Much of the work will need to be with pitch recognition, understanding the strike zone and developing an approach that doesn't have him swinging at anything and everything. At just 23 years old, there is time.
Defensively, he really is a man without a position. He can try and work at first base, but his lack of foot speed and athleticism will hinder him and it will be a challenge to be adequate at best. His true position may be DH and once or twice a week catcher.
As for Sucre, he is a defensive first catcher who impressed the Mariners coaching staff this spring. He is hitting .302 but has 59 at-bats on the season. To get Sucre on the roster, the team will have to make room for him on the 40-man roster.
Why Sucre and not Zunino, the Mariners' catcher of the future? After a torrid start, Zunino has cooled off considerably. Triple-A pitchers have stopped throwing him fastballs in the strike zone. He's now seeing a steady diet of breaking and offspeed pitches and elevated fastballs with two strikes. He still needs time to mature and play every day. Forcing him into the big leagues before he is ready would likely do more harm than good at this point.