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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 19, 2008 10:04 AM

Vidro, Betancourt and the No. 2 hole

Posted by Geoff Baker

Some of you continue to write in, asking me about the Mariners experimenting with Yuniesky Betancourt in the No. 2 spot in the order. Others have written, suggesting it's not in the team's best interest to have Jose Vidro attain the specific number of trips to the plate he needs for a 2009 vesting option to kick in (rumored to be either 400 at-bats, or 450 plate appearances).

I'd suggest a possible link between those two issues.

The laments about Vidro have been well-chronicled. For the first half of last season, he hit for too little power. Many of you remain unconvinced that his second-half improvement will carry over to this season. Fair enough. I'll take it a step further, as some of you have, and say that the Mariners have no reason to wait half a season this time around to see whether or not Vidro is for real.

Hit like he did in the second-half, with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .820-.850, over an entire season and it's not a problem. Produce a sub-.700 OPS in the first half once again and the problem can't be ignored.

As I mentioned with Richie Sexson yesterday, there are many alternatives the M's can consider this time around. Vidro doesn't have to be given a full year to prove himself at DH. Especially, not with that vesting option. If he can't handle the DH role, it will be bad enough for the team in 2008. No sense bringing Vidro back for 2009 if that can be avoided.

Alternatives?

Once again, if by mid-May the team is not getting production out of Vidro, it may be time to call up Jeff Clement from Class AAA. Some of you want May 1 as the drop-dead date. I prefer a six-week trial period. Plenty of players have lousy opening months, sometimes due to cold weather and rainouts. Go to mid-May, you get a better idea of what's in-store, plus offering any minor leaguers the chance to further demonstrate they've mastered the AAA level prior to a call-up. If Clement is hitting .215 with a .725 OPS down in Tacoma, you don't call him up.

But Clement is one option. The team could make him the DH and move Vidro to a pinch-hitter role. That move would be two-fold. Seattle would be able to use a .300-hitting Vidro (assuming he still hits for average, if not doubles power) as a switch-hitting, late-game solution off the bench. And restricting Vidro to pinch-hit duty would assure that he does not collect the required number of at-bats for his vesting option to kick in.

That's one solution.

If Vidro struggles and Clement isn't deemed ready, another option would be for Raul Ibanez to be moved to the DH role, Brad Wilkerson to be shifted over to left field and Wladimir Balentien called up from Class AAA to play right.

You can play off this theme to varying degrees.

Suppose Vidro and Sexson were to struggle, as they did early last season. You could make a simultaneous switch, putting Ibanez or Clement (I'd go with Ibanez since he's done it in the majors before) at first base and moving whoever doesn't get that position over to DH. Wilkerson would again go to left and Balentien to right.

Obviously, the latter course of action is the least preferable. A team wants to be making as few major changes and disruptions as possible once a lineup is set. Make too many changes and there are too many things that can go wrong. A one-for-one swap is prefereable to introducing four players to new roles at once. Just common sense.

But it's out there. If needed, it can be done.

In fact, the team may be planning it with Vidro even if he gets his OPS above .800.

I have no proof of this, but I'm not sure team officials are thrilled about that vesting option for a guy who brings less pure power to the plate than your typical DH. Not when the cost to buy Vidro out is a mere $500,000. And I'm also not sure the team wants Clement, or Balentien, to be sitting around in AAA all year.

But if you're going to pull Vidro from the starting lineup at some point, you'll need a No. 2 hitter. Right now, Vidro is the best answer to the No. 2 spot in the order that the Mariners have.

And so, we come back to Betancourt batting second. Is he the answer in the No. 2 hole? He certainly has some speed and I know the team loves the idea of Betancourt and Ichiro on the bases together. That's why they had Betancourt batting ninth last year. He's a better hitter than No. 8 Jose Lopez. But batting him ninth puts him back-to-back with Ichiro. So does batting Betancourt second.

Does Betancourt have the bat of a No. 2 hitter? When he isn't chasing pitches over his head. That latter part is a problem, though. No. 2 hitters need plate discipline and the ability to make contact. Vidro has that. Does Betancourt? Not last year. Not all the time, anyway. My guess is this spring is somewhat of an experiment to see how far he's come.

Others have been paraded in and out of that No. 2 hole as well. Just remember, if Vidro goes, someone has to bat second. And as I mentioned, Betancourt has to bat ninth or second in the order to keep that 1-2 speed punch with Ichiro. Batting Betancourt second at some point during the season may not be a perfect solution.

But at this stage, with what we know, it's safe to assume that it's one scenario being considered.

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