The business of baseball does not slow for the sake of convenience, and it does not account much for hurt feelings — which does not mean feelings don’t get hurt. The Nationals designated Montero for assignment Wednesday. They needed his spot on the 40-man roster for Moises Sierra, the outfielder they chose to fill in while Adam Eaton rests a bone bruise in his ankle. They didn’t need Montero’s catching services anymore because in defensive skill-set and offensive energy, 24-year-old Pedro Severino is simply playing better. But suddenly, after making the Opening Day roster and serving a few weeks as the backup to Matt Wieters, Montero is gone.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo signed Montero as a teenager out of Venezuela more than a decade ago. Manager Dave Martinez coached him in Chicago. Neither wants to have conversations like the one they had to have Wednesday with the hitless Montero. But no baseball team can move forward without those conversations.
“Very tough. But he’s a professional,” Martinez said. “The hardest thing for me is letting guys go like that. I’ve known Miggy for a long time — personally know
his family, so it was tough. But he gets it. He wanted me to thank everybody, which I will. He said we gave him an opportunity and it just didn’t pan out.”
Given the way Severino played since being called up in the first week of the season, Montero seemed unlikely to stick for long. Severino is the best defensive catcher in the organization and a capable offensive player. He has shown a tendency to play better when the lights are brighter, as opposed to when he is buried in the minors. And many of his teammates have noticed a renewed focus on pitch-calling. He carries a notebook around now, asking people what they’re working on, noting their preferences in certain counts.
“What I like about Sevy is he took what we told him in spring training to heart, and he’s working every day to get to know the pitching staff,” Martinez said. “And that’s the biggest thing for us, calling pitches and working with the pitchers. And he’s done that and he’s done it well. And I’m getting a lot of feedback saying that he’s done a great job so as long as he continues doing that — hitting comes and goes.”
Severino has hit, too — .368 in a small sample. He won’t hit .368 all year. He probably won’t hit .300. But he has shown a knack for fighting off tough pitches and finding a way to put the ball in play in big spots. And more than anything, Severino has displayed energy — on the bases, at the plate and behind it. On every borderline checked-swing, he jumps out of the crouch to ask the base umpires for help. On every passed ball, he pops up and sprints to retrieve it, never holding back. He throws aggressively to bases, taking more risks than Wieters or Montero do.
The Nationals activated Wieters off the disabled list Wednesday, though Severino will start and catch A.J. Cole in a matinee at Nationals Park. Wieters entered the season as the starter, and that probably has not changed. The Nationals’ veteran pitching staff prizes Wieters’s ability to call a game and make in-game adjustments. But the Nationals hoped to diminish Wieters’s workload from the 123 games he caught last season. Could he and Severino split time?
“I haven’t thought about it yet. We’ll see,” Martinez said. “Wieters is coming back from an injury, and it’s an oblique injury, so we definitely want to be careful. Sevy’s earned the right to play, and I want him to play. He’s done well, so we’ll see what we can do and see how we can match them both up.”
Rizzo has a history of keeping veterans around, of finding a way to avoid cutting them loose abruptly, as he did with Montero. That he and the Nationals decided to make this move now shows elevated confidence in Severino and a desire to get him big league playing time. In designating Montero for assignment, the Nationals have seven days to try to trade him, and 10 days to either place him on waivers and (if he clears them) assign him to the minors, or to release him. The way Martinez spoke Wednesday morning, it seems the plan is to let Montero pursue opportunities elsewhere, though no one has said so for sure. The Nationals only have to pay Montero the prorated part of his salary, so this is not an expensive decision. But it was certainly not an easy one.