First (base) thing's first for Montero

26-year-old focusing on defense, approach at the plate this spring

First (base) thing's first for Montero

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- A year ago, Jesus Montero was one of the big early storylines in Mariners camp after losing more than 30 pounds while turning around both his physical appearance and reputation following a rocky start to his career in Seattle.

But now Montero is quietly fighting to take the next step, looking to win a job on the Mariners' 25-man roster as a backup first baseman. The clock is ticking as he's out of Minor League options and will be exposed to waivers if he's sent down this year, but Montero maintains a calm serenity as he goes about his business.

Once regarded as one of baseball's top right-handed hitting prospects as a catcher coming up with the Yankees, he knows there's still a lot to prove if he's going to salvage a Major League career.

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"Every spring I want to do better," said the 26-year-old Venezuelan. "I want to be prepared for whatever opportunity they give me. I want to be the best. I want to do the best. And I want to help the team win. That's what I care about."

Montero spent the offseason again working every day at the team's Peoria complex with strength coach James Clifford. He says this year he didn't lose any more weight, but instead focused on getting stronger.

"I'm trying to keep the weight right there, but I have a little more muscle," he said. "Last year, at the beginning I felt a little weak because I'd lost so much weight. I'm taking a lot of protein and working out hard. It's a little bit different now. I'm a little stronger."

The biggest change this spring for Montero is his plate approach. Under advice from hitting coach Edgar Martinez, he's trying to shorten his swing and be quicker to the ball, an important step for a guy who has crushed Triple-A pitching, but been exposed some at the big-league level at times.

Montero came off the bench in the sixth inning of Sunday's 7-3 win over the Rangers and flied out to the fence in center field in his first at-bat in the sixth, just missing a three-run homer, then doubled over the right fielder's head in the ninth to put him at 3-for-8 (.375) in the early going this spring.

"It's a loud bat," said manager Scott Servais. "When he squares it, the ball jumps off it. He's had a ton of success at the Triple-A level. He's trying to get consistent. It's more about not the batting average, but what kind of at-bat are we getting. Is it walking up there mindless, first-pitch hacking? Or is it actually looking for your pitch, putting a good solid at-bat when you feel good about getting the guy in from third. There's a difference. They pitch to you differently when there's a guy in scoring position. We'll evaluate that as we go along."

Just as importantly, Montero needs to prove still he can play first base, where he's been working now for two years since being shifted from catcher. Again, Servais will evaluate closely as Montero competes with Dae-Ho Lee, Gaby Sanchez and Stefen Romero for the right-handed platoon to Adam Lind.

"He made a nice catch on a popup [over his shoulder] which he went after the other day very confidently and aggressively, which is good to see, then caught it no problem," Servais said. "It continues to be a work in progress, but he's working at it.

"He kind of knows where his shortcomings are. He needs to get a little looser. At times he looks very stiff over there. But so far, so good. He'll get a lot of time as the games get going here."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.