John McGrath

McGrath: Is the Mariners’ Montero turning a corner?

Jesus Montero spent Christmas working out at the Seattle Mariners spring training complex.

That the casually indifferent Montero exercised during a holiday synonymous with feasting sounds out of character for the formerly coveted prospect, whose soft belly and hard head have frustrated his baseball bosses. But the sweat-shop session was not scheduled on a whim.

Montero spent New Year’s Day working out, too.

The Mariners held their annual winter media luncheon Thursday at Safeco Field, where tradition demanded that trainer Rick Griffin begin the event with updates from the injury front. Griffin soon steered the conversation towards Montero, whose only major health issue last season was the erratic state of his mind.

Seems Montero weighs 235 pounds, some 40 pounds less than he did when he waddled into spring camp last February and infuriated general manager Jack Zduriencik. What had been hoped to be a comeback year for Montero devolved into a second consecutive season of profound frustration. It concluded with Montero’s suspension for attempting to attack the Seattle scout taunting him in the stands of a Single-A park.

The scout was released — good riddance — and nobody would have blamed Zduriencik if he’d been just as stern with Montero. But instead of showing him the door, Zduriencik offered the 25-year old counseling for his troubles off the field, as well as an opportunity to find a place to play on it.

“I’ve never given up on Jesus,” Zduriencik said Thursday. “Have I been disappointed? Yes, I think we all have. He’s faced so many issues and made some very poor decisions, but he’s a good kid.

“Obviously, he’s got a big egg on his face. But he deserves a second chance. He deserves a third chance.”

After the incident with the scout, Zduriencik brought Montero and his wife to Seattle for what amounted to a lecture presented as a pep talk.

“Jesus, first and foremost, we need to save you as a human being,” Zduriencik recalled telling him. “We need to make you a functional person in terms of some of your decisions and some of the directions you’re misguided on.”

Manager Lloyd McClendon took a similar tone during a face-to-face meeting with Montero in Arizona.

“This is not just about the game of baseball,” McClendon told him. “It’s about the game of life.”

Between the advice he got from Zduriencik and McClendon, and the realization his career had reached a critical intersection, Montero was motivated to transform from overweight underachiever into a productive player, albeit one without a specific role on the big-league roster.

The acquisition of free agent slugger Nelson Cruz, a right-handed designated hitter, mitigates Montero’s potential to serve in the same capacity. Montero probably is done behind the plate, and throughout his conversion to first base he’s looked more like a failed catcher than an adequate first baseman.

While the future is uncertain for Montero, empowering him with the ability to grasp what’s at stake here and now has become a mission for the Mariners front office.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m his father,” said Chris Gwynn, the team’s director of player development. “Sometimes I feel like his big brother. I just have to tell him that he needs to pick it up because nobody promises anything in baseball. Period. This game can move on without you, and it will.”

It’s fair to wonder: Why have the Mariners remained so patient with somebody whose career is teetering on the brink of an epic flop?

“At times last season,” Gwynn said of Montero, “he was definitely our best hitter in Triple-A.”

Zduriencik, who in 2012 arranged a four-player trade associated with two names — starting pitcher Michael Pineda, an All-Star selection as a rookie, in exchange for Montero, a power-hitting Yankees catcher — still envisions Montero’s bat driving balls into the right-center gap at Safeco Field.

“Last fall, I asked Robbie Cano a question,” said Zduriencik, referring to Montero’s once and future teammate. “ ‘When you were in that New York Yankees dugout and this 20-year old kid came up from the minor leagues, what did you think of him as a player?’ ”

Answered Cano: “We were like, ‘Whoa.’ This guy’s hitting balls into right-center field and home runs down the left-field line against Jered Weaver. He’s 20 years old and he’s a monster. Oh my God, we’ve got ourselves a 30-40 home-run guy moving forward.”

Montero revealed a glimpse of that guy in 2012, when he hit 16 homers for the Mariners in 135 games. But he didn’t move forward.

Knee surgery and a 50-game suspension for his involvement with a performance-drug clinic operated by a quack preceded a winter spent eating what he wanted and when he wanted, which preceded a summer that ended with Montero determined to bash his bat on the skull of the jerk who sent him an ice cream sandwich during a Single-A game.

“He’s stubbed his toe, a second toe and a third toe,” Zduriencik said of Montero. “The bottom line is, he’s still a part of this organization, we’ve got a lot invested in him and we certainly want him to be successful. I think he’s going to be given that opportunity.”

You and I can imagine 101 more fun ways to celebrate the holidays than in the exercise room of an empty spring training complex. So can Jesus Montero, who knows this much:

Those 101 more fun ways do nothing to sustain a stubbed-toe baseball career that’s running out of toes.

  Comments