Montero 'extremely hungry' to start at hot corner

March 9th, 2023

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It may have been the only time that it was OK for Rockies third baseman not to keep his feet moving.

On Wednesday against the Angels, Montero drove a pitch that neither Tempe Diablo Stadium nor even the trees well beyond the left-field wall could hold. He watched, expecting it to curve foul. But Montero’s broad-chested and wide-shouldered frame offered enough strength to keep it straight enough. He dropped the bat and dashed when certain.

The potential for power isn’t a question. But Montero’s feet are the issue when he is wearing a glove. Whether he can move them well enough to become a dependable defender will be key to the Rockies’ decision whether to start him at third base when the season begins on March 30 against the Padres at Petco Park.

“No doubt, both are very important,” Montero said through interpreter and bullpen catcher Aaron Muñoz. “But I know my weakness is my defense. I’ve emphasized the defensive side of the work a little bit more than my offensive side. Again, both are equally important.”

With Ryan McMahon shifting to second base from third, where he has been a Gold Glove finalist since Nolan Arenado was traded to the Cardinals in 2021, third base is at least somewhat open. But Montero, 24, who came over in the Arenado trade, appeared in 53 games last season while bouncing between the Rockies and Triple-A Albuquerque, and he has the swing of a player ready to provide Major League power.

But Montero’s defense is the question, and the answer has to come from his feet. He has quick hands, and the arm is strong. But getting his big frame (listed at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds) into position for accurate throws is taking time. Cactus League started with him yanking a couple of throws, which required the first baseman to lean toward right and make a tough scoop. One sailed, requiring a leaping catch and tag. Thanks to work at the receiving end, Montero does not have an error.

Montero can help the daily lineup -- if he can fulfill manager Bud Black’s defensive directives.

“He’s got work capacity -- his stamina is such where he can handle a [heavy] workload in spring,” Black said. “I want to say that he’s reliable on balls he should make as a Major League third baseman. That’s where I want to get to.

“And he’s getting close to fulfilling that standard.”

The Rockies have alternatives. Utility man Alan Trejo is bucking for regular duty. Nolan Jones was acquired in the offseason from the Guardians, for whom he debuted last year, and is on the Major League 40-man roster. Non-roster invitees Harold Castro and Cole Tucker have competent gloves.

To further protect themselves, the Rockies on Sunday signed veteran Mike Moustakas to a Minor League deal. If he can overcome three injury-filled years with the Reds, he is a left-handed-hitting option at designated hitter and both corner infield spots. Moustakas can grab a roster spot or a third-base job should the Rockies send Montero to Albuquerque for daily play.

But going into his start as the designated hitter on Thursday against Mexico in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game, Montero has played 51 innings at third base over seven starts during the Cactus League schedule. Other than McMahon, with three starts before the injury to Brendan Rodgers, no one else has started more than one game or played more than 28 innings at the hot corner.

Montero stands out in a culture that requires infielders to take more grounders before 8 a.m., than most people take all day. Indoors, the strength and conditioning staff emphasizes Montero’s flexibility and agility.

“Montero works extremely hard all the time,” said new third-base coach and infield instructor Warren Schaeffer, who has added drills to make Montero’s stance less anchored so he can better ignite his feet. “If a situation changes, I don’t think the work should change. The work has always been good, and it should stay good.”

Montero said, “I’m extremely hungry. The work that I’ve done to be in the position I am, I’m extremely grateful. I want to take advantage of the opportunity. I’m sure it’ll work out.”