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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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June 2, 2008 8:32 AM

The Sexson quandary

Posted by Geoff Baker

Good to be back after a nice weekend off. Took in the Canada-Brazil soccer match on Saturday night, going crazy for a little while thinking the impossible might happen for us Canucks, then simply enjoying the show. Everything was going fine yesterday as well until I flipped on the television set to watch Los Marineros and, well, then...you all know what happened next.

First off, the Richie Sexson at-bat would not even have been an issue if the Seattle closer had not imploded in a seven-batter top of the ninth inning. Something isn't right with J.J. Putz. His command, obviously. After Putz made a triumphant return off the DL against Baltimore in April, he had six strikeouts and one walk for the season. Since that point, he has 10 strikeouts and nine walks. Not a good ratio for any pitcher, let alone a closer.

Brandon Morrow's strikeouts-to-walks totals are 22 to 7 for the season. The last four games he's appeared in, with his team tied or leading, see him with seven strikeouts versus one walk. A closer needs to keep men off base and have that strikeout ability to prevent runners from moving along further. No one is saying Putz deserves to lose his job. But let's face it, his team is going nowhere. Until he gets some issues sorted out, it would behoove the M's to consider either sticking with Morrow longer in games, or making him the temporary closer until the real one gets back to normal.

I'm not at all in favor of flipping roles for good. In fact, I think Morrow is benefitting from working in the eighth inning (rather than the ninth) and getting to face hitters who've been seeing pitches from a tiring starter or a middle reliever. Going from a fastball in the 89 mph range to one in the 98 mph range is very tough on a hitter. Morrow would not have that advantage in starting off the ninth, where the hitters would usually be transitioning from a setup man before him -- a pitcher obviously throwing much harder.

The Morrow-Putz combo has the makings of a playoff duo when everyone is healthy. Think Mariano Rivera-John Wetteland circa 1996, or Francisco Rodriguez-Troy Percival in 2002. There have been ample cases throughout this game's more modern history where folks thought -- that's thought, not proved -- the setup man was better than the closer.

Anyway, it's all moot. Without Putz, this team's going nowhere now or in 2009. Remember, Morrow is supposed to be a starter next year, right? It's what most of you want, if I'm not mistaken. So then, you all have to hope Putz gets back on-track. But temporarily, I see nothing wrong with letting Morrow take the ninth and giving Putz some earlier innings to start dominating hitters in once again.

Now, on to Richie Sexson. For me, this is a more important issue for now. As for whether or not Sexson should have been pinch-hitting in yesterday's ninth inning, let's make sure we're all on the same page. We're talking about the same guy, right? The same Sexson? The one with a .277 on-base percentage for the season? A .197 OBP since May 1? With a .485 on-base-plus-slugging percentage at Safeco Field? Hitting .167 with runners on base?

OK, so that's the guy. He hasn't swung a bat in a game since May 26, mainly because he had 17 strikeouts in his previous 36 at-bats. And yet, all of a sudden, he's going to come in cold off the bench and hit the other team's closer? Uh, no. Bringing Sexson in for that at-bat would have amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.



As bad as Miguel Cairo's overall numbers may be, he's had hits in all five games since taking Sexson's place. He did hit the game's final out on a line -- albeit straight into the outfielder's glove. But still, while he's only had solo hits in each game, hardly scorching up the field, I think you take your chances with him in that situation. Like I said, his bat is warmer and he did hit the ball hard. Had he popped up weakly to third base, I think we'd have more of a debate here. But not much of one. The same reasoning applies. You can't bring a struggling guy like Sexson in cold to face a closer in his first at-bat in a week.

Most of you wanted Sexson gone a month ago. Now, he's the team's savior? Not sure I get it.

The one thing McLaren and Bill Bavasi have left themselves open to on the criticism front is the makeup of their 25-man roster and the decision to keep Sexson in limbo. If you're going to go the Sexson-to-the-bench route, then swallow some courage pills and go the whole-hog. Get rid of Sexson and call up Jeff Clement as the new DH, once again, and go with a Jose Vidro-Cairo solution at first base for now. Start working Clement out at first base as well. It doesn't matter whether or not Clement "wants'' to do it. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. He's a Class AAA guy who has done nothing in the big leagues. If he wants to play in the majors, this will be as good a chance as any for him. In Clement's defense, I've never heard him flat-out say he won't do it. This isn't even up for discussion. It's the team's call.

You could also move Raul Ibanez to first base on a more permanent basis. The trouble with that move is, the M's don't have corner outfielders who've shown they can play on a full-time basis. Wladimir Balentien's OPS has dropped below .700 nearing five full weeks in the big leagues. Jeremy Reed did not convince anyone he was an everyday player his first two cracks at the opening day roster in 2005 and 2006. His numbers overall aren't any better at present, though, in his defense, he's played sporadically. The last two games, starting back-to-back, he's gone 3-for-9 at the plate. Maybe the club should run him out there in 10 straight games and see what he does. So far, if Ibanez moves to first base, the team arguably has two fourth outfielders manning the corners. Yes, the defense would improve. But it would have to improve a whole lot more to compensate for the loss in offense.

There is no easy fix here.

But a team that does not have a pinch-hitting option to replace Cairo with in the ninth is a team with some serious design flaws. If you thought Sexson was wasting a roster spot before, what is he doing now? I'm sure we'll see Sexson back in there tonight against Joe Saunders. But I'm not sure why. If it was so easy to re-energize this club by replacing Sexson with a singles hitter who plays adequate defense, there are a number of options out there that fit the bill just as well.

The season is over, folks. It's time for this team to move on to Plan B at first base. I don't think Cairo, as well as he's played under the circumstances, is that 2009 option. If it's going to be Clement, let's get him up here and start putting that plan -- slowly -- into place. If it's going to be Ibanez, you still call up Clement and keep your options and substitution possibilities open.

Right now, I'd just as soon have Clement up on the team and striking out every second at-bat than see Sexson riding the pine for days on end.

If a team is going to play itself out of contention a third of the way into a season, then it does not have to compound the damage by wasting the final two-thirds of the same campaign.

ADDITIONAL NOTE (9:58 a.m.): For those of you writing in to discuss Sexson's 5-for-11 career numbers versus Todd Jones, exactly zero of those hits came in the past two seasons. Also, exactly zero of them came after Sexson had been benched for five straight games. If we're going to cherry pick here to further some agenda regarding managerial decisions, why not go all the way? Let's pretend Sexson's 2006 numbers, like his .842 OPS, have some bearing on the current season. By that logic, Sexson should be starting every day and allowed to finish off his contract. So, for those of you bringing up Jones, I expect to hear no more harping about Sexson the rest of the season. Fair enough? Otherwise, time to re-examine the logic being applied. Unless Jones is now underhanding the ball in from the mound, Sexson's ability to hit him pre-2007 really has as much relevance here as the price of tea, or beer, in Papua, New Guinea.


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