D-backs still love Montero, but how much?
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Eight throws into a tryout camp in 2001, Junior Noboa knew this: Miguel Montero would be a Diamondback.
For super scout Noboa, the most difficult part of that day in Caracas was containing his enthusiasm long enough to finish the workout and get Montero and his father to a nearby hotel to sign a contract, which included a $10,000 bonus. Other teams told Montero he was too short. Noboa saw past that.
"As soon as I saw him, I knew I had to sign that guy," Noboa said Monday. "When I saw Miguel swing a bat and throw from home plate to second base, I loved what I saw. I saw instincts.
"I usually watch the way they walk (at the camp), they way they warm up, the way they talk to the other players. I saw leadership. Miguel was one of the guys — he turned the light on for me right away. I loved Miguel Montero."
Eleven years later, the D-backs find themselves in almost exactly the same situation: They love Montero’s game and energy and would like to keep when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year. This time, it will not be that easy.
The market for top-tier catchers moved into the eight-figure-per-season range this spring, and the D-backs’ resources are nothing like the Yankees, the Angels or the Cardinals, who signed Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million extension early in spring training as the D-backs ended contract talks with Montero. A source with knowledge of the talks said Montero had been seeking a long-term deal worth $12 million-$13 million a year.
The Montero question is perhaps the most intriguing story line as the D-backs attempt to defend their NL West title this season.
Will the D-backs also put off long-term contract talks with right-handers Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, who are close to arbitration but a long way from free agency? Will they find a deal they cannot refuse for a younger catcher? Will Montero play so well that the D-backs will decide they cannot do without him?
"We’re an organization that doesn’t have unlimited resources, so when you make decisions on multi-year deals — especially where there are significant dollars — if somebody stays, somebody (else) has to go probably," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said. "Those are things we will weigh at the end of the year. When your players become good players and they approach free agency, sometimes you have to make tough decisions.
"How he is going to perform? Are we able to acquire more depth in that area for protection in case we can’t get something done? If we don’t, maybe we have to bite the bullet. We’ll see. Or spend more than we were hoping to spend. Would we like to have him back? Yes. Are we a better ball club with him? Is he a tough guy to replace? Yes. You can’t just continue to chase your tail, either."
Montero, who turns 29 in July, made his first All-Star team last season in his first full season; he won the starting job the second half of 2009 before a knee injury sidelined him for the first half of 2010. He led NL catchers in RBI (83) and doubles (36) while hitting .282 with an OPS of .820, also the highest in the league at his position. Montero, a sturdy 5-foot-11, threw out 40 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him last year, the highest rate in the majors.
At the same time, numbers only tell part of the story. It is the way Montero interacts with teammates that makes him special. He spent time with The D-backs minor leaguers this spring, working out in their weight room and offering encouragement. He took 2011 first-round draft choice Archie Bradley to dinner with newcomer Takashi Saito and some veterans one night.
"You have to remember where you came from," Montero said.
Montero is the most vocal player in the clubhouse, and his upbeat presence seems to help his teammates relax. He shouts "Here we go, here we go" as he and the day’s starting pitcher reach the dugout after pregame warm-ups. In the playoffs, Montero molded his right hand to look like a snake head in "snake mode" to counter Milwaukee's "beast mode."
Teammates eat it up.
"Good energy. Positive vibe," third baseman Ryan Roberts said. "He is always getting guys ready, talking, keeping it loose, keeping it relaxed. You get caught thinking a lot in baseball, and you can think yourself into some crazy things. So if you have somebody to keep you off that, keeping you loose and laughing and joking around, it is good."
Montero has become one of manager Kirk Gibson’s favorites, in large part because of his personality.
"He tells me every day 'You look tired, Gibby.' I tell him to give me some of that coffee," Gibson said.
Gibson believes in giving his catcher a lot of in-game responsibility, and he said he put even more on Montero’s plate this spring. Gibson also believes in controlling the running game, and with his pitchers' help, Montero was the best catcher in baseball at throwing out runners attempting to steal.
"The catchers run a lot of stuff out there. It’s my feeling they understand more of the situation, probably, than we do sitting on the side," Gibson said. "He knows how the pitcher is throwing. He knows whether he can get a groundball. He knows whether he can strike a guy out. He reads the swings. In spring training, we’ve given him almost total control.
"He’s every bit as important as your QB in football. He’s a year smarter. He's in great shape. He has a great attitude. He's had a year of success. He knows that things work. He knows his stuff."
Montero prefers to focus on that stuff rather than the past or the future.
"It was a good year. It's over," he said of 2011. "I have to start out a new year and have to do better. Obviously I want to stay here, because this is the team that gave me the chance. This is the team I want to play for. That’s it."
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