Miguel Montero saw the writing on the wall, maybe during his rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee last year, but definitely by spring training: Willson Contreras would be coming for his job.
Montero is known for his blunt honesty among reporters and teammates, so the veteran catcher wouldn’t kid himself and deny how the Cubs saw this playing out or freeze out the rookie who had also grown up in Venezuela.
It’s not like Montero would go AWOL and follow the Tommy La Stella playbook — he’s guaranteed $14 million this season and $14 million more in 2017 — plus he had been accommodating and generous to Kyle Schwarber during last year’s playoff run.
But with Contreras catching Jake Arrieta for the first time in a real game on Thursday — and the Cubs winning for the 18th time in their last 21 games — this three-city road trip that begins Friday night against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field could accelerate the phasing out of Montero.
“Listen, I mean this absolutely as sincerely as I possibly can, I have been so impressed with him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He has been a mentor to these guys. He understands what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. He is a positive force on the bench every day.
“Obviously, he’s not happy with the season that he’s had so far on a personal level. But he’s ecstatic about what we’re doing. My perception (of him has only) become greater and greater in a positive way. And I told him that.
“It would be very easy for a guy that’s played as long as he had, with the success that he’s had, to be a little bit more sarcastic or negative in his approach. But he’s been the exact opposite. He’s helping us a lot right now.”
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The Cubs traded for Montero, a two-time All-Star with the Arizona Diamondbacks, during the 2014 winter meetings, and then added personal catcher David Ross as the insurance policy to Jon Lester’s $155 million megadeal.
Now 33, Montero hasn’t provided the offensive thump the Cubs hoped for, hitting .187 with five homers and a .620 OPS in 218 plate appearances, stuck in a three-catcher rotation for the team with the best record in baseball.
“Obviously, it’s hard to kind of go out there and play maybe once every five days,” Montero said. “Whenever I play, I just try to have fun, because if I start putting pressure on myself that I need to get a hit (or) I need to get three hits to see if I make the lineup the next day — which is not going to happen — it’s a lot more stress on my shoulders now.
“I might as well just go out there and have fun. I’m still going to give my best. I’m not saying (whatever). No, I’m going to try and do my best. And if it works out, great. And if it doesn’t, I mean, I’m not going to hate myself for it.”
Montero also understands how this business works, that no one can predict what will happen across the season’s final six weeks and what the Cubs hope will be a long playoff run through October.
“He’s still going to play,” Maddon said. “I’m not being facetious. The rest is doing him some good for the latter part of the season, so he’s in the right frame of mind right now. I give him all the credit in the world.”