JUPITER, Fla. — Miguel Montero walked into the Washington Nationals‘ clubhouse Monday morning, his young son by his side, one of several signs of the time that has passed since former Arizona Diamondbacks scouting director Mike Rizzo’s scouts signed him for $13,000 out of Venezuela in 2001. His helmet hides a balding head, and his walk betrays the effects of years of squatting behind the plate and the beating that comes with it.
In the years since signing that deal, Montero rose to the National League catching elite, built himself into a two-time all-star, caught at least 110 games in six of seven seasons — then slowly slid down the slope that makes most well-worn catchers a victim of their own success.
Last season, the Chicago Cubs released him, and the then-hapless Toronto Blue Jays signed him to take innings down the stretch. This offseason, most teams didn’t call. But Rizzo, Washington’s general manager, did. Now, 17 years later, one of the few unsettled spots on his Nationals’ roster pivots around Montero.
If he shows himself capable, he could be the Nationals’ backup catcher, in which case he would supplant Pedro Severino, who has waited in the catching wings through Jose Lobaton’s tenure, through Derek Norris’s brief stay and Matt Wieters’s arrival, too.
If he doesn’t show himself capable, that could spur the Nationals to push harder on Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. So far, Miami’s asking price has not dipped below Victor Robles, which is not a price the Nationals are willing to pay. Jonathan Lucroy is the best unsigned free agent catcher, though a person familiar with the Nationals’ thinking said they have not considered him as an option.
“You think about [how] you’re going to have a legit opportunity to compete for a spot, and I was willing to do that. That’s why I accepted [the Nationals’ offer],” Montero said. “[Rizzo] just told me it was a legitimate opportunity.”
Montero didn’t have many of those this offseason. Like so many other established veterans, interest was low — so low that he considered staying home with his son. He decided he wouldn’t announce his retirement or anything, as that would have ended things for good. But he was willing to wait, or not play at all, if the game pushed him that direction. He hit .216 with a .656 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over 76 games with the Cubs and Blue Jays in 2017. He knew he wouldn’t be any team’s first catching option.
But Rizzo gave him the chance, one that could reunite him with Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, who was previously the bench coach in Chicago. Montero’s Cubs tenure ended in relative disgrace after the Nationals stole seven bases in four innings against Montero and Jake Arrieta last summer. Montero, known for speaking his mind, publicly blamed Arrieta for the trouble. Anthony Rizzo called him “selfish.” The Cubs released him the next day.
“He speaks his mind, and I’m okay with that,” Martinez said. “He’s a great teammate. He really is. Regardless of what happened. That’s all forgotten about.”
Montero started behind the plate in Monday’s 2-1 Grapefruit League loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, by which time he had accumulated more at-bats than Wieters, Severino or any of the other catchers on the Nationals’ spring training roster. He went 0 for 2 and is now 2 for 12 this spring, though exactly how much he would need to show the Nationals offensively is not yet clear. Severino is 3 for 10. The samples are small, and any conclusions drawn from them are untrustworthy.
Meanwhile, Montero caught Tanner Roark for the third time Monday, and Roark’s eyes lit up when asked about throwing to him through his four one-hit innings.
“I like the way he calls the game. He’s been around the game a long time. He knows a lot of these guys,” Roark said. “It’s great when he calls the pitch, and that’s exactly the pitch that you’re thinking. It makes you that much more confident you’re going to get this guy out.”
Montero laughed when asked about what his strengths are these days, 12 years into a career that’s included a World Series title.
“None?” he responded, as Wieters chuckled with him from the locker next door. At this point, Montero isn’t as agile as he once was, and he doesn’t throw well at all. Defensively, Severino is better. But for a veteran pitching staff like this one, experience yields clout — and clout yields trust.
“What I like is he’s very intuitive. He calls a good game. He handles a pitching staff well,” Martinez said. “And knowing Miguel, he’s a big-game player. He loves big moments.”
This team can build for big moments, and has for years now. The Nationals build their bench with an eye toward preserving regulars for October — and with an eye toward late-inning substitutions when they get there. Montero hit the third pinch-hit grand slam in MLB postseason history. He is a left-handed bat that can hit for power off the bench. Severino has made a playoff roster, runs well and could probably be relied on to hit .250 or .260 with regular at-bats.
In Severino, the Nationals see talent and energy. In Montero, they see experience and instinct. And while he has been assertive with veteran starters, Montero has been seen as much as heard in the Nationals’ clubhouse, his locker buried deep in the back corner, his body normally buried in a chair with teammates around him.
“Obviously, you don’t know all personalities here. You’re trying to learn in spring training, all those personalities, so you can help in one way or another,” Montero said. “But right now, the main focus is to make the team.”
Martinez and Rizzo have been clear that they want to keep Wieters healthy, to set a games-played target of 100 or so games for him this season, a choice that leaves 60 or so games to whoever serves as his backup. Besides a few spots in the bullpen, and perhaps the fifth starter’s role, the backup catcher’s job is the most up-for-grabs on the roster — and probably the most intriguing position-player roster battle the Nationals will watch this spring. Montero will be a pivotal figure, one way or the other.
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