CAGUAS, Puerto Rico - One of the Orioles not in mini-camp in Sarasota this week is catcher Johnny Monell, who was acquired in a trade with the San Francisco Giants on Nov. 30 in exchange for cash considerations. Monell, who got his first taste of the majors in 2013, is expected to compete for the role of Matt Wieters’ backup in spring training.
Monell is currently playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League - officially Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente - with los Criollos de Caguas, the defending league champ and Puerto Rican representative in the Caribbean Series. Caguas is part of the league’s round-robin playoffs, and is hoping to capture the first back-to-back titles in its 75-year history.
On Friday night, I caught up with Caguas general manager Alex Cora, the in-studio analyst for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” who gave me a scouting report on one of the newest Orioles.
Monell finished the winter league regular season batting .245 with four homers and 17 RBIs in 32 games. He got regular playing time early in the season, but as he’s slumped, the 27-year-old has been supplanted behind the plate by veteran major leaguer Ramon Castro. In the round-robin phase, Monell lost potential at-bats at designated hitter because the Criollos drafted two players from los Cangrejeros de Santurce - the fifth-place regular season finisher, which did not make the playoffs - and have largely been alternating them at DH.
Cora hasn’t lost faith in Monell, and he said Friday night, “He isn’t starting now, but he may get a big hit for us tonight.” Well, Cora was two days off. Monell homered twice Sunday in the Criollos’ 8-5 loss at Ponce. In the round robin, Monell is now hitting .222.
I asked Cora, a 13-year major leaguer, where he saw Monell fitting in with the O’s. Surprisingly, Cora told me that Monell’s ability to play multiple positions may be his biggest asset aside from his bat, which produced a .275/.364/.494 slash line at Triple-A Fresno last season, including 20 homers and 64 RBIs, both career highs.
“He’s going to help them out playing first and playing left field, and he can catch,” Cora said. “His bat will play in the big leagues. He struggled this (winter), but that’s part of the learning process. He gets to the big leagues for one month, thought this would be a piece of cake, and he struggled. He struck out a lot. Instead of hitting line drives to left-center, he’s trying to hit home runs. He struggled, but he learned.”
Will Monell, who hit .125 after his September summons to San Francisco, learn from the adversity he’s faced in Puerto Rico?
“I hope so,” Cora replied. “He hasn’t yet. But taking a step back, he’s watching the game. He can hit. He’s average behind the plate. But he’s such a good athlete, I think he’ll be OK.”