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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 28, 2008 11:36 AM

Ichiro in right? No thanks

Posted by Geoff Baker

sandiego0627 023.jpg

A look, above, at one of my favorite features of Petco Park. They've actually incorporated part of an historic old building into the left field foul pole. You can see the 336 foot sign actually written on to the building's bricks. How many other ballparks can say that? Uh, none.

Anyhow, the Mariners avoided a huge debacle last night by actually winning despite stranding a team record 18 men on base. I know the team was pleased to win. It should be, since wins have come at a premium this season and Seattle is now 4-3 on this trip with a chance to sew up a rare winning road expedition tonight.

All that aside, how in the heck do you strand 18 runners? Easy. Put a team on the field with no power. The Mariners had 12 hits and nine walks in the game and also reached base twice more on errors. So, how on Earth did they score only five runs? Here goes. Only one hit -- a Kenji Johjima double in the sixth -- went for extra bases. In fact, the M's were fortunate to even score the runs they did. One of Adrian Beltre's RBI singles was an infield hit while the other -- a two-run smack -- needed a half-dozen hops to make it out of the infield. No, the home crowd was not happy with the San Diego defense.

But, when you have no power, it takes a whole bunch of hits just to bring one run across. If Bill James was watching, he could come up with another snappy line, along the likes of: "Bad teams have good hitters that only hit singles." Or something cute like that.

Which brings us back to Ichiro. One of this team's prime needs moving forward will be to find some power.

Seattle has no power in the three traditional baseball power slots of RF, 1B and DH. We won't go into Jose Vidro and Richie Sexson. We all know about their power outages. Beltre's slugging percentage at third base has not been above .400 in any one month since April. Teams traditionally place their power guys in the corners of the outfield and infield, so that the quicker -- slighter of build -- speed guys can man the tougher defensive positions up the middle.

Not so with the Mariners. Not only do they lack power at the traditional spots, but they just made a move to put a singles hitter -- a really good one, but a singles hitter nonetheless -- into one of the corner slots reserved for power hitters. This won't fly.


Don't take my word for it. Watch this team play every night. The "death by a thousand pinpricks'' approach to team hitting might work against the dregs of the NL -- the Padres couldn't hit their way out of a paper bag filled with hydrochloric acid -- where every game seems like it's 3-2. But go into Fenway Park needing 23 baserunners to score five runs every night and chances are you'll lose just about every time.

A team with real power in a non-traditional spot, like, say, a .500 slugging guy at second base a la Chase Utley, could afford to keep a singles hitter in right field. But this team can't. This team can't find any real power in any of the usual power spots, let alone a non-traditional one. So, why again is Ichiro playing right field? It wasn't good enough for the M's in 2006, back when Richie Sexson was still an automatic 35-homer guy. The team knew then that it would never generate enough power to contend and decided late that season to switch Ichiro to center.

It made sense to move Ichiro to center and bring over Jose Guillen to put up an OPS above .800 in right. Makes just as much sense today. I'd still rather see Wladimir Balentien, for all his inability to hit once he got up here, manning the outfield corners.

For the record, I believe Balentien will be a left fielder for this team, no matter how much work he's getting in center. The M's need to bring a home run hitter in to play right field. A legitimate power guy. Not Ichiro. I suppose one could argue the Ichiro move is only a temporary one. That he could be back in center field come next season. I guess I just don't see the point. How is Ichiro going to find his hitting groove again -- for those of you who believe he's the victim of bad luck rather than declining skill -- if he's being jerked back and forth between outfield positions?

For Ichiro to help this team, he has to take his singles-hitting approach into center field. The team then has to plug right field with a guy who can hit for power. If he can play defense, that's a bonus. But for now, I'd sacrifice a little defense in the right field corner for a little pop at the plate. This team is going to have enough problems finding power at two positions -- first base and DH -- next year. It's not as easy as saying "those power guys are a dime a dozen, blah, blah, blah!'' It may seem that way, but it isn't. If it was, this club would not have just wasted three years trying to find a power-hitting DH. If it was, Jeff Clement and Balentien would be lighting up scoreboards. But it takes time for young hitters to develop, as we're seeing in both cases. It won't be automatic that Clement can step into, say, a DH role next year and put up a .500 slugging percentage.

So, this team already has some work ahead at getting adequate power at 1B and DH. It doesn't need to further handcuff itself by creating another power void in right field. Unless the plan is to spend a premium on a power-hitting center fielder. After what's happened with Vernon Wells and Andruw Jones of late, I'd avoid that route at all costs. Want to keep Ichiro? Make life easy on yourself. Play him in center. Or let him play right field someplace else, on a team that can afford to keep his excellent brand of baseball in a power-hitting position. This M's team can't. It has to play someone else in right as it moves forward.

If not, a team with severe offensive and power problems is going to keep having nights like last night.

By the way, those of you emailing me about Jarrod Washburn's comments last night. When a pitcher talks about command, he isn't only referring to walk rates and stuff. Sure, walk rates can be a good indicator of command. After all, if you can't throw strikes, your command isn't very good.

But, there is more to command than mere walk rates. Especially for a pitch-to-contract guy like Washburn. A pitcher like that needs command to get hitters to swing at balls and mis-hit them. If you don't have command, some of those pitches float into the hitter's wheelhouse and get belted for home runs. There is a very fine line between success and failure for such pitchers. When Washburn is on his game, the opposition tends to hit the ball both on the ground and in the air. But even the flyballs are of the less dangerous variety, like what we saw last night. For those of you who watched the game, you saw plenty of mis-hit fly balls that looked more like glorified pop-ups. Only a handful of balls were hit hard all night.

That is primarily what "command" means for a pitcher like that. Washburn was hitting his spots when he had to. Sure, he walks a few guys now and then. But when Washburn's command is off, it's the type of hits off him that really gets impacted. Lots more deep doubles, homers and the like. When he's on, there's still contact, but of the lesser variety.

Let's take a look at the power numbers against him. In terms of park-weighted OPS+ numbers we see:

April -- 127
May -- 162
June -- 108

Or, in plain old real OPS:

April -- .837
May -- .935
June -- .781

Or in slugging percentage:

April -- .492
May -- .583
June -- .424

A pretty significant drop. So, when Washburn tells us his command has improved, I tend to believe him. When an opposing scout who has followed Washburn extensively this year tells me he sees the same things Washburn is talking about, the guy isn't talking out of his baseball cap. He's there. He sees what's going on. Knows what to look for. Walk rates, in this case, will not tell you the full story. Washburn's command centers around his ability to leave the ball in a place where the hitter can swing without causing the M's untold damage. Would I hang on to him for next year? Nope, I'd still deal him. Who knows how long this mechanical adjustment he's made will last? But it appears to be working. At least for now. And right now, short-term success is all this team needs out of Washburn if the goal is to move him. Hope that helps.

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