SEATTLE -- Jesus Montero became something of a forgotten man in the Mariners' plans last season, but the converted first baseman is making some noise this winter for Cardenales de Lara in the Venezuelan League.
Montero lost his job as Seattle's starting catcher when he was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma in late May, and then left knee surgery and a 50-game suspension cost him most of the rest of his season. But the 23-year-old went to Venezuela to get some work and is hitting .306 with four doubles, one home run and 11 RBIs in 18 games while playing primarily at first base for Lara.
Montero went 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and two runs scored in a 6-3 win over Bravos de Margarita on Tuesday to extend his hitting streak to seven games. He's raised his average from .239 during that stretch and now has a slash line of .306/.342/.403.
Montero was regarded as one of the premier young right-handed-hitting prospects in baseball when he was acquired from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda trade in 2012, but he batted just .208 with three home runs and nine RBIs in 29 games for Seattle, and struggled defensively behind the plate as well last season after taking over the starting-catching role.
The Mariners are looking at Montero strictly as a first base and designated hitter candidate now, and it will be interesting to see if he works his way back into the mix next spring, given the club's need for right-handed hitting help.
Montero is one of only a few Mariners position players getting much playing time so far this winter. The other youngster making the biggest impact is shortstop Chris Taylor (the No. 5 player in the Mariners prospect rankings on MLB.com), who has hit safely in nine of his last 11 games in the Arizona Fall League.
Taylor was the Mariners' Minor League Player of the Year last season after batting .314 with 60 RBIs, 100 runs and 34 stolen bases in 134 games between Class A Advanced High Desert and Double-A Jackson. The 2012 fifth-round Draft pick out of the University of Virginia has carried that hot bat into the AFL, where he's hitting .340 after a 1-for-5 outing in Wednesday's 6-5 victory for Peoria over Surprise.
Brandon Maurer, who started 14 games for the Mariners last year as a rookie, pitched the first four innings in Wednesday's win for Peoria and wound up with a no-decision after allowing three hits and two runs with three walks and three strikeouts.
Maurer, 23, is 1-1 with a 4.58 ERA in five AFL starts with 17 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings. He'll be looking to compete for a rotation berth when the Mariners report to Spring Training in February under new manager Lloyd McClendon.
Right-hander Dominic Leone, another hard-throwing Mariners prospect, picked up his fifth save for Peoria on Wednesday with a scoreless ninth despite allowing two hits. Leone has a 2.70 ERA in nine appearances. Fellow right-hander Carson Smith (No. 13 prospect on MLB.com) has been shut down for the rest of the winter after allowing seven runs on seven hits and four walks in five innings in five AFL outings.
Outfielder Carlos Peguero has hit .304 with one home run and four RBIs in six games for Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League, while right-hander Hector Noesi has been outstanding for Tigres del Licey in the same league with a 1.15 ERA in three starts.
Noesi, the other player obtained from the Yankees in the Pineda trade, has limited opponents to a .213 batting average while walking four and striking out nine in 15 2/3 innings.
Abraham Almonte, who debuted in the Mariners' outfield in September, is expected to play some games in the Dominican League, but has yet to join his Toros del Este squad.