Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.
June 16, 2008 9:06 AM
Posted by Geoff Baker
Wow, a guy takes a weekend off and look what happens. The M's decide to join him in not showing up to Safeco Field. Trouble is, they didn't bother informing anyone and the games were played in any event. Just when I thought a three-game series couldn't get much worse than last week's affair in Toronto -- as far as both teams trying desperately to hand victory to their opponent -- along come the Washington Nationals, who, tried to blow a 7-1 lead in the opener, gave the M's two on, none out and a 3-0 count on Yuniesky Betancourt in a close middle game, then commited three errors in one inning to give the Mariners some life in yesterday's finale. No matter, though. Despite Washington's best efforts at keeping the show competitive, it was still one of the more embarrassing sweeps in Mariner history. Not as bad as the games in Detroit a few weeks ago, but considering the caliber of this opponent, the fact it hails from the National League and Seattle was playing on its home turf, the organization should be as embarrassed as the fans by this result.
Jarrod Washburn looked good again, by the way. I still think he has some trade value, as I said on KJR AM 950's Mitch in the Morning Show last week. Send Washburn to an NL team and I would not be surprised to see him hit double-figures in wins again with a sub-4.00 ERA. Look at his last two starts against the Nationals and a Blue Jays squad that fields an NL-style (read: weak) lineup. Those bottom three guys in a lineup make a big difference. Could revive Washburn's career the way a league switch once did for Woody Williams, give value to an NL squad, and allow the M's to get out from under the final year of his contract. Despite what was in Jayson Stark's column last week, Washburn and Carlos Silva are not in the same category. Silva has 3 1/2 seasons to go and about $40 million owed.
Anyhow, back to today's topic. Looks like firing the hitting coach wasn't enough, huh? In six games under the teachings of Lee Elia, the M's have scored a whopping 16 runs. Less than three per game. But wait, it gets better. Take away Friday's affair, when they put up six runs, mostly after trailing 7-1, and Seattle has scored 10 runs over the other five games. Yup, two per contest. Yikes.
As we wrote last week, the Pentland firing was just the first of other sacrifices to come that this awful team will have to spread out carefully in order to actually have enough bodies left to finish the season with. Imagine if a mass purge had occurred last week. Who would be left to toss overboard now? The M's likely assumed they would win at least two of three against the Nats. They were wrong and now, they have to ready the next offering to irate fans.
Does this have to happen today? No, it does not. The team can probably afford to wait until Thursday, the next off-day after the upcoming Florida Marlins series. Why is that? Two words (well, four actually): Felix Hernandez and Carlos Silva.
We all know Hernandez has pitched well lately. He'll get tomorrow's start against Florida. Silva has also pitched well his last two times out against the Angels and Blue Jays, despite falling behind 3-0 in the first inning of the Los Angeles game. After that one inning, Silva has allowed only five earned runs his last 14 frames.
So, as good as the Marlins have looked this season, it is possible -- not probable, but possible -- that the M's could win one or both of the next two games. If that happens, there will not have to be a sacrifice this week. We're speaking strictly from an optics perspective here. Take two of three from the Marlins, and the M's can declare they are playing better baseball, etc., etc.
Now, if that doesn't happen, if Seattle drops five of six, or six of six, on this homestand, you'd better believe another body will have to be chucked overboard. Fans of this team, even the casual ones who flock to the ballpark for their "Disneyland experience'' are scratching their heads and wondering what it will take to see some action out of this organization.
I'll admit it. I'm shocked at how weak and powerless this organization is allowing itself to be portrayed as. I'm trying, on this blog, to spell out what is likely the thought process we're seeing. But even I am having a hard time buying into all of it. If ever an organization wanted to portray itself as clueless, cut off from its fanbase, mindless of its fanbase and all around delusional, it merely has to dust off the 2008 Mariners Handbook and proceed accordingly.
This organization is coming dangerously close to making a mockery of itself that will last beyond this one season. I'm not as reactionary as some fans who bemoan their misery simply because they haven't made the playoffs since 2001. Seven years is not a long time in baseball. When you reach age 35, many of you will figure out that seven years is not a long time in anything. As for the World Series, I know 30 years is a long time to wait. But you know, as a longtime Montreal Expos fan, I never saw one either and my team only made the playoffs once in its entire existence. Not four times in seven seasons. Seattle fans had it great under this ownership group from 1995-2003, to be honest with you. So, you haven't been suffering all that long in recent years. Still, I will concede that sports fans nowadays don't have the same patience level. There is pressure to win and win now, in all sports and all markets. And yes, it's been tough in the Bill Bavasi years.
But this once proud organization, which did plenty from 1995 to 2003 as far as fielding playoff-caliber teams, is now a joke. Folks across baseball are staring at this train wreck in amazement and wondering what it will take to see any player moves made by this team. Yes, the M's have thrown their hat behind John McLaren. OK, I get that. If Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong feel this is not a field manager issue, then McLaren finishes the year. There is some logic to that.
But, if they feel the players have underperformed, which they clearly have, then it's time to make moves. The moves could have been made weeks ago, but now, with another sacrifice looming, it's time to get some bodies up on the plank.
I know the team is worried about having enough talent on the roster to play competitive ball the rest of the way. Some of you may scoff at the difference between a 99-loss or 100-loss season, but believe me, the team is conscious of it. The symbolism does matter. As we've said, the season is over. Symbolism is all that is left right now. The importance of "playing the kids" won't be reduced all that dramatically if they are playing from July through September as opposed to June through September. Nothing that gets done in a half-season is really going to dictate how a player does in a full season.
Look at Asdrubal Cabrera in Cleveland. His first full season with the Indians has been a bust, compared to his partial campaign last year.
Yes, the M's will have to allow prospects to get their feet wet at some point. Up until now, they've been terrified by their experiences with Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien. Clement was awful his first 15-game stint this year, to the point where he had to be sent down to figure out how to hit again. He wasn't going to swim his way out of it against major league pitching and the M's were still clinging to the notion they could put together a win streak and climb back into contention. I mean, look at Balentien. He hasn't exactly hit his way out of his early slump, has he? His numbers keep getting worse.
So, this is why the team has yet to dump its underproducing vets. They can forsee a youth-laden lineup where two runs per game becomes a good day.
Unfortunately, though, this logic no longer holds. Here's why. There are at least two lineup veterans -- Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro -- who lately have performed about as badly Clement did when he was up here. We're halfway through June and Sexson's OPS for the month is a dismal .612. For all the talk about his open stance and his on-base improvement, the guy hasn't had an extra-base hit since May 26. No team can go three weeks without at least a double from its first baseman and expect to be productive offensively. Sexson is as bad as ever.
As for Vidro, don't let those two home runs this past week fool you. He has been back to his old tricks in June, putting up just a .488 OPS. No other extra-base hits besides the two long balls. And that's from a designated hitter! Vidro's .702 OPS in May was able to partly justify the decision to use him ahead of Clement and send the latter back to Class AAA to work on his stroke.
Well, that stroke appears to be clicking for Clement. Vidro has gone back to producing next to nothing. Ditto for Sexson.
What moves should be contemplated by the team? Well, here are a couple. Jeremy Reed has been working out at first base for a reason. If you have to make some sacrifices, I would first call up Clement ASAP and swap him for Vidro at the DH spot. Keep Vidro around as a pinch-hitter if need be, though it's tough to justify letting someone else go off the roster for that. It would necessitate a second move. And for me, that's when you designate Sexson for assignment and shift Reed into his first base slot. That way, you can go with Reed there at least a couple of times per week, maybe Miguel Cairo some others and -- since you're keeping Vidro under this scenario, just not as an everyday player -- maybe Vidro there once a week.
Under this scenario, Balentien has to step it up, which is why the team has worked furiously with him behind the scenes. Balentien has not been sent to Class AAA because the team knows there are player moves coming up and that he needs to be a contributor for them to work.
For instance, it was tough for the team to take Raul Ibanez out of left field when it had two other corner outfielders -- Reed and Balentien -- who had yet to show they can contribute every day. Believe me, anyone can see that Ibanez needs to be pulled out of left field. The M's aren't dumber than any of you when it comes to baseball. No major league team is. Sorry to say, but them's the facts. They know the team will be better off with Ibanez as a DH or first baseman. But not with two guys hitting below .200 and playing at the outfield corners. Reed has now shown he can be an everyday player, at least in the context of this bad team. Once Balentien shows this, you can, at least a couple of days per week, go with Balentien in left and Reed in right and make Ibanez the DH. For those games where Reed would not be playing first base.
But it's all predicated on Balentien doing more on a day-to-day basis. Even if Ibanez remains in left field and Reed shifts to first base, Balentien will need to play right field every day without embarrassing himself.
For now, though, the next sacrifices are clear. To me, anyway. This team can no longer pretend that Sexson and Vidro are contributing anything more than Clement and Reed would in their spots on a day-to-day basis. For Sexson, that means sayanora. For Vidro, it means possibly the same thing, or at least a reduced role as a pinch-hitter, or (very) part-time first baseman.
Clement is not the "fifth best hitter" on this team, despite what I've read from some of you. He still has to prove he can hit in the big leagues. But for now, the two other guys I've mentioned haven't proved they should be on this roster ahead of him.
So, that's how I see some of this going.
Yes, the team could still fire the manager. But I don't see that coming just yet. Not when there are still players who can be sacrificed ahead of McLaren.
ADDITIONAL NOTE (9:37 a.m.): No Chris, it's because Reed just might be the best daily alternative to Sexson at first base, say four or five times per week. From a defensive and power perspective. It sure wouldn't be Miguel Cairo. I'm not convinced that Ibanez is the answer at first base just because he manned the position years ago. Also not convinced that Balentien can handle an everyday outfield job, which would have to happen if you move Ibanez to first base. In theory, yes, Ibanez makes the most sense at first. But in practice, I don't know.
And for Resin, actually, no, Balentien's numbers aren't dropping because he's been pulled out of the lineup on a regular basis. They've been dropping since his first game with the team in April. He's got just one extra-base hit -- a double -- over the past month. As a right fielder. If you view that type of power shortage as grounds for dismissing Richie Sexson, you can't argue it as a plus for giving Balentien more playing time from any objective position. I know some of you are enamored with the idea of "playing the kids'' but the idea will be less romantic if the team gets shut out every other day. There is a minimum needed from a major league right fielder and Balentien has not provided it for a month. Even when he was playing every day. His OPS for May, as an everyday player, was .630, for crying out loud. At a power position. In what universe does that justify more playing time?
And no one used Asdrubal Cabrera to say that playing prospects doesn't work. Just that the extra two or three months a prospect might get "broken in" one year won't necessarily determine whether they play well or not the next season out of spring training. Jeff Clement should be up here now because he is ripping home runs in Class AAA. Not as much because it will make him a better player next year. This season is over for the M's. A prospect coming up now and doing well, with no real pressure for the team to win every night, won't be the same as doing it when something is at stake next season. Clement and others can get their "experience" during the second half and it will mean as much as if they're called up right now. If Clement is called up now, it will be because the team thinks he's better than the guy he's replacing. That's why he got called up in April. It's why he was sent back down two weeks later. You don't "play the kids" in May just for the sake of playing kids. That's second half stuff.