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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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March 18, 2008 2:17 PM

Sexson must produce quickly

Posted by Geoff Baker

One of you wrote in today, challenging part of my forecast for the coming season in saying there is no way the Mariners would bench an underperforming Richie Sexson. I disagree. In fact, it's a little remembered reality of last season that new manager John McLaren did actually bench Sexson beginning on Aug. 1, as you can read in the attached blog post from that night. More accurately, McLaren began platooning Sexson with Ben Broussard. The night before, in an 8-0 loss to the Angels, Sexson had been roundly booed by his own fans. The decision was made not to play him every day against right handed pitchers at Safeco Field and subject him to more abuse while he was trying to work some things out.

So, to say McLaren would not have the guts to sit a veteran isn't entirely accurate. He's already done it.

Sexson on Aug. 1 was benched in favor of Broussard against right handed pitcher Jered Weaver (though he did replace Broussard after the latter's first three at-bats -- since Weaver was knocked from the game and replaced by lefty Darren Oliver -- and notched three at-bats of his own from the seventh inning onward of a wild 8-7 affair decided in the 12th).

After an off-day, Sexson went hitless against Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, then sat out two more games against right handed starters.

After that came a road trip to Baltimore where McLaren figured Sexson might be able to get back on-track without his own fans booing his every move. He put him in for one game and Sexson got two hits, earning himself a start the next day, when he went a so-so 1-for-4 against Jeremy Guthrie.

The next day, with another righty on the mound, Broussard was back in the lineup.

Now, some will say that after this point, the platoon should have stuck. It didn't. Sexson was given the chance to play all three games in Chicago against the White Sox and went 5-for-13 with a double and a home run. Sexson had a five-game hit streak. At that point, the platoon was effectively over, however shortlived it was. The next night, at Safeco Field, Sexson hit a double and then the winning home run in the ninth to beat the Twins.

Hindsight tells us that was the high point of Sexson's season. At the time, the M's were hoping, praying that his power stroke was back.

It wasn't. For whatever reason you want to believe. You can buy the injured hamstring as a reason (and he was hurt, he wasn't icing up and getting bandaged every day for show) or simply conclude Sexson had reverted to poor form in a poor season. By September, he was back on the bench for medical reasons and was effectively done for the year. By then, it was too late, though, as a late-August slide had already begun to ruin any serious playoff hopes.

Two things are different this year, though. For one, this is McLaren's team. He is not taking over from another manager mid-season. He has no political and clubhouse minefields to navigate. He can tell players right from the get-go what is expected and dish out the consequences if he doesn't get it. McLaren, as I noted, already relegated Sexson to the bench on a minimal basis last August. No reason he can't go full-throttle this time around if need be. In fact, I'd expect him to.

The second point is that Sexson is in the final year of his contract. If he does not produce early, the team will not be doing itself any favors by continuing to let him play. A sub-.200 batting average, sub-.300 on-base percentage and sub-.400 slugging percentage come mid-May? Time for Plan B. Last year, let's not forget, humiliating Sexson in public would not have put him in the best frame of mind to come back and help this team win in 2008. However right or wrong you think that is, it's a reality of the human condition.

No such excuses anymore. Sexson is a sunk cost. That $14 million he'll earn this year is already spent and won't impact next season one bit.

And yes, I do expect the team to treat Sexson differently than last year if he struggles so poorly this time around. I don't expect him to, but if he does, there is no excuse. There are players who can be moved around, prospects who can be called up from Class AAA.

One of the reasons teams love to be underdogs is that it lowers expectation levels. Drops the bar a bit when it comes to criticism. Not this time. As I wrote this morning, the M's should be the AL West favorites. That said, if their first baseman is hitting .176 with a .657 OPS as Sexson was on last May 15, and the team chooses to stay the course?

Time to rake them over the coals. With "favorite'' status comes the responsibility to play and act like one. Players and management alike. The time for excuses is done.

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