Montz's fast start puts him on Nats' radar

Catcher taking over starting role for Double-A Harrisburg

Luke Montz hit .400 in his first 12 games and has shown an accurate arm behind the plate. (Joy R. Absalon/MLB.com)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | April 22, 2008 3:21 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- It's a generally accepted notion that Washington has penciled in Jesus Flores as its catcher of the future. Though the young backstop is currently calling Columbus home, he's shown he can play at the big-league level, and with a little more polish, he could be a productive player for years.

Luke Montz doesn't dispute any of that. But Montz, who was handed the starting catcher's job at Double-A Harrisburg on Monday when Javi Herrera was promoted to Columbus to be Flores' backup, refuses to believe anything is as permanent as it seems. To that end, he's looking to demonstrate to the folks in Washington, or whatever other front-office people around baseball are watching, that he can also be a Major League catcher -- and a good one.

Based on what he's shown so far this season, he's on his way to proving his point. Montz had been splitting time with Herrera but will now play everyday. Heading into Tuesday night's action with visiting Erie, Montz is hitting .432 (16-for-37) and riding a seven-game hitting streak. He has also thrown out 10 of 15 runners attempting to steal.

With numbers like that, some have questioned why it was Herrera (who was hitting .217 and had thrown out two of eight runners attempting to steal) who got promoted and not Montz. But Montz didn't need any convincing to understand that he is in a good position by staying right where he is.

"When the season started [Harrisburg manager John Stearns] told us we'd each be catching one day on, one day off," Montz said. "Herrera and I are friends, but we were both fighting for the job and competing. I caught fire and now I'm getting a chance to catch every day.

"It's great to see Javi go to Triple-A, but now I have the opportunity to play every day. Flores will be there and he's their main guy. What I need to do is show that I can play five or six days a week and show that I can come in here now and take control of the pitching staff."

Stearns was a former first-round pick and a four-time All-Star during his 11 years in the Major Leagues. He's been a roving catcher instructor and a manager in the Minor Leagues for more than a decade and has liked what he's seen in Montz. While Stearns thinks the youngster still has some work to do defensively -- he believes Montz boxes the ball a bit too much behind the plate and goes to the backhand rather than stepping out as often as he should -- he hasn't found much to criticize.

"He's a legit prospect," Stearns said. "Coming into this year, I had never seen him play and didn't know he was a prospect. But he has really shown me a lot. He's got power, he's got a good bat and a nice swing and he can throw. He has a plus arm and is very accurate, so he has potential to be a Major League catcher.

"The big question now is whether he can play five or six days a week at that position. That's a position that bogs you down. It bogs your bat down; your legs get heavy. But he was earning the right to play more, and we're getting ready to ease Luke into more playing time. He's been a pleasant surprise."

Montz, 24, came into this season with a career .236 batting average. He appeared in 40 games for Harrisburg last year and hit .233 after batting .269 in 60 games for Class A Advanced Potomac. So even he's a bit surprised he's hitting above .400 nearly a month into the season. He knows that won't last, but he's hoping he can be consistent enough this season that April won't be his high-water mark.

One reason he may have an easier time staying consistent throughout the entire season concerns his life off the field. Montz says he's a big family kind of guy, but had been estranged from his father for years. The two reunited this winter and he couldn't be happier. Needless to say, he thinks there is some correlation between that and his quick start.

"It would wear and tear on you as the season went along," Montz said of the fractured relationship. "This past winter was the first time in two years that I went home to my family. Now my family is with me again, though they always supported me. They're backing me and that's been a huge part of my season right now."

Washington's assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo said Montz has "the best arm in the system" and the club "expects great things from him." So sure, the talk in Washington will primarily be about Flores. But know that the Nats are watching Montz, and he may not be far behind.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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