By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) The line was drawn in the sand last fall.
After his team’s championship win, Cubs veteran catcher Miguel Montero was the first to speak out about his lack of playing time in 2016. He let people know he was upset that he wasn’t in the lineup more often during the run to the title.
The handwriting was on the wall, all of it leading up to Wednesday, when Montero’s tenure with the Cubs ended when he was designated for assignment, a day after he criticized teammate Jake Arrieta.
With three years and $42 million left on his deal when Montero was acquired by Chicago ahead of the 2015 season, money and leadership were going to be areas of concern with the prideful Montero after he came up lame.
The general blowback from the discord between Montero and manager Joe Maddon last November needed to be addressed the first week of spring training this season. The two men, along with quality assurance coach Henry Blanco, had dinner at a nice Scottsdale, Ariz. restaurant to smooth over their differences. During that discussion, Maddon told Montero he was no longer the No. 1 catcher on the team. Willson Contreras was crowned the new man behind the plate.
A meeting of the minds ended in an agreement. Montero would accept his new role as backup catcher and mentor to the young Chicago players and pitchers. Maddon would lean on him for leadership and direction that a veteran player can offer in a limited role.
With the departure of the iconic David Ross, leadership and solid play on the field twice a week was expected from the 33-year-old Montero. He was no longer expected to put up big numbers as 2017 opened after a poor 2016 campaign in which he hit .216 with a .684 OPS. In his two-and-a-half seasons with the Cubs, Montero contributed 27 home runs and 94 RBIs in 799 at-bats. That was much less than was expected from the Cubs when they brought the catcher aboard.
Montero’s exit came because of his outburst late Tuesday, when he deflected blame for the Nationals stealing seven bases to Arrieta, who he cited for having a “slow” delivery. Montero has thrown out just 1-of-32 base-stealers this season.
In my mind, the fact that Montero’s throwing had eroded to the point of embarrassment led to him speaking out about the failure of Arrieta and other Cubs starting pitchers to hold runners on base. Montero is a smart guy, and he had to know this was going to end his tenure with the all-for-one, one-for-all Cubs.
This outcome certainly wasn’t what the organization’s top brass expected when they traded for Montero, a two-time All-Star, in December 2014. Montero’s power numbers decreased, and the throwing skills went south as well. Most of this was due to two bulging discs in his back. One-hop throws were the common thread that opponents watched Montero struggle with in video scouting sessions before his starts behind the plate.
When Montero said Cubs pitchers weren’t holding runners on base, he was right. The missing element was that he could not throw 90 feet on a line. Montero was 5-of-86 in catching would-be base-stealers the last two seasons. Teams ran because they knew the perfect storm of not holding runners by the pitchers and a poor-throwing Montero couldn’t stop them.
When you walk six batters like Arrieta did Tuesday evening, the price you pay is a steep one. In the case of Montero, he knew his time as a top-flight catcher was nearing its end.
Montero should always be remembered as a hero in the Cubs’ run for their first World Series title in 108 seasons. His game-winning grand slam against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series was a key component to the Cubs winning the pennant. And his base hit in Game 7 of the World Series delivered the eighth and deciding run in the 10th inning of the 8-7 clinching win.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.