Jesus Montero Isn’t Just A Best-Shape Story
I’m not entirely sure where we stand on these at the moment. In the familiar history, players would show up at spring training and declare that they were fitter than ever. This happened often enough that people who cover players started to make fun of them for it, sometimes gently and sometimes not so much, with the message always being that, great, glad you look a little sexier, but nobody cares. What’s the current state, though? Especially with so many players reading material online. Are they sufficiently self-aware to avoid saying they’re in the best shape of their lives? Do they look for different ways to say it? Do we look for different ways to respond to it? These things are always evolving. Anything to squeeze something fresh from a hopelessly trite bowl of oranges.
Someone, somewhere, is still going to compile a list this spring training of players who say they’re in particularly great shape. The point will be to laugh about it. Jesus Montero is going to be on the list. Jesus Montero is in the best shape of his life. I don’t think that applies to any player more than it applies to Montero. So in a sense Montero is the new face of an annual cliche, but I don’t think we should be so cynical. There’s safety in cynicism — there’s comfort in remaining closed-minded — but I don’t think Jesus Montero’s is just another empty and purposeless spin of the best-shape carnival wheel.
And, this is really easy. David Freese might be in the best shape of his life. If that’s perhaps an exaggeration, Freese is at least supposed to be in better-than-usual shape. It’s an easy thing to shrug off, though. Why? Freese has never been in bad shape. Freese has always been a classically-built ballplayer, with strength for days, and no one’s ever looked at him and thought, “you could stand to do something with your body.” When Freese’s body has held him back, it’s been because of injuries. Some fractures, some consequences of hit-by-pitches, a busted ankle tendon. Being more fit won’t stop those things. You won’t look at Freese this year and think he’s a different player.
And maybe Jesus Montero won’t be a different player, but he’ll at least profile differently. His transformation is something sensational, because in the past, he hasn’t looked like a classically-built ballplayer. And he still doesn’t look like Yasiel Puig, but glance at a picture of Montero from this week and you’ll swear you see a damned athlete. The reason this matters is because Montero’s fitness was a legitimate problem. It was holding him back in virtually every way — it was bad for his running, it was bad for his fielding, it was bad for his swing, and it was bad for his confidence. We used to joke about Jose Lopez being out of shape. Jesus Montero was, totally honestly, badly out of shape. That was broadly evident a year ago, but it was a factor, too, the year before that. Montero says he’s back to 2011 weight, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s moved beyond 2011 athleticism. The work he’s put in, he’s never put in before.
That’s the other part of this. One thing holding Montero back was his level of fitness. That reflected a pretty unprofessional lack of discipline. So not only could he not do certain things like he wanted to; he didn’t demonstrate much drive to get better. What’s the expression? Talent gets you to the majors, and heart keeps you there, or something like that? Talent got Jesus Montero to the majors. He didn’t put in the effort to stick.
Extended major-league careers are selective for those players who try hard enough. There’s some minimum determination threshold, and while it isn’t the same for every player, since some players are just naturally superior to others, literally everybody has to bust his ass to get to arbitration salaries or free agency. Montero never showed enough initiative. Now he’s coming off an offseason of working out I think literally every day, even on holidays, even on the big ones. Montero didn’t go home. He worked out. He didn’t stop working out. He conveyed that something clicked, or that something was at least in the process of clicking. I don’t want to go too far, but based on indications, I think now Jesus Montero might get it.
Again, it’s easy to snark. Montero’s the same guy who once said he spent the whole offseason eating, and lest you forget, that was only a year ago, and people grow only so much in a year. You can analyze the hell out of this, though. Montero’s around those ages when people start to learn something about real-world responsibilities. Montero’s coming off some of the most embarrassing seasons in recent Mariners history, and his own bosses ripped him in the media. And Montero recently had a child. His very own human child! There have been a lot of significant changes in Jesus Montero’s life. So it makes sense they could’ve driven him to make another. Do you know what it feels like to bottom out of 24? Actually, maybe you do, but I bet people never believed in you as much as they believed in Jesus Montero. I bet you’ve never let that many people down. Let that many people down, and a man has decisions to make.
Montero, the last few months, has made good decisions. To some extent the initial decision might’ve been made for him, by the organization, but Montero has elected to stick with the plan and show some real, actual discipline. Now he looks like a baseball player. Maybe he still won’t look much like a baseball player during organized, competitive baseball games, but if talent comes naturally, then Montero has cleared the path for the talent to show itself again. Unless things turn, his body won’t hold him back nearly as much. Unless things turn, his effort won’t hold him back nearly as much. All we’ve wanted to know is whether Jesus Montero is good enough to play for a while in the major leagues. Montero has taken steps toward letting us finally find out. As long as this keeps up, then if Jesus Montero fails, he’ll fail on account of his skills. Of the many ways to fail, that’s gotta be the best.