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July 6, 2007 at 12:05 PM

Keeping up with Jones

OK, no sense wasting time on telling you what you already know. The Mariners are trying desperately to make it through to the All-Star Break with a crew of walking wounded. They are in good shape, wild-card wise, not so great shape in the AL West. For all of you about to yell and scream that the Mariners are right on the Angles’ heels, I’ll point out that Seattle has gained a grand total of one game on Los Angeles since losing that late-May series. Yes, the Angels were up by eight games not too long ago and the M’s grabbed four back because they went on a hot streak while LA hit the skids. Doesn’t happen often. Maybe once per season will you see a quick climb like that. That’s the beauty of an eight-game cushion. Lets you absorb setbacks like that. Over the long-term, though, it’s very difficult to gain more than a couple of games per month on a serious playoff contender.
Yes, the Mariners are doing much better than most of us had any reason to expect. But the reason I keep pointing out the above — the fact that they have to keep playing hard through the ASB — is because their hold on a serious run at contention is still tenuous. Being 2 1/2 games behind in the wild-card standings at the break is far better than 4 1/2. Seattle can’t let up now.
That being said, it’s time for management of this team to be proactive and do the things it can to help itself. Mark Buehrle isn’t going to sign long-term until after this season if the White Sox trade him. That makes the price of acquiring him possibly less than it would have been had he been open to a multi-year deal before July 31. The only team he’s willing to do that with is the Chisox, who are balking at giving him a full no-trade guarantee. It’s a game of chicken. If the White Sox lose, it means the M’s might not have to trade an Adam Jones to pick him up. Should the M’s be willing to part with a Wladimir Balentien, a Ryan Feierabend, or another top prospect or two to get Buehrle for the second half alone? I say yes. Playoff opportunities do not come around very often. Looking at how stacked the Angels and A’s are pitching-wise, there is no guarantee the Mariners will finish any higher than third in the AL West in coming seasons. Sometimes, you just have to go for it and take your chances. And a winning season here, even if it’s “just” a wild-card berth, could spur Buehrle to sign longer term in Seattle. It could persuade Ichiro to stay and — gasp — even offer his own version of a “hometown discount” to do it.
So yes, if Buehrle is out there, you put together a package of prospects and go get him. Part of me is even willing to sacrifice Jones for that opportunity. No, I would not want to be the guy making that call. If I’m Bill Bavasi and my job might be done by October if I can’t make the playoffs, it’s a very real opportunity that is foolish not to look at. As I said, there is no guarantee the Angels and A’s won’t be cleaning up this division a year from now. This may be Seattle’s best shot at the post-season for years to come. And being a playoff team does help when it comes to attracting free agents in the winter.
That said, there are things the M’s can do to better themselves right now. As I sit typing this. I’ve kept quiet on the subject for the past month to see how things played out in both the division, the wild-card and on the field. It’s becoming clearer to me with each passing day that there are inconsistencies in this offense that cannot be allowed to continue if Seattle is to contend. The Mariners do not have starters as good over-all as the Angels and A’s, or the Detroit Tigers for that matter. That aside, the starters have pitched very well the past couple of weeks. This week alone, in the last turn through the rotation, all have gone at least seven innings with the exception of Feierabend.
Seattle’s record during that five-game span? Only 2-3. That cannot be allowed to continue. You can’t waste a dominant run by starters on this team because there is no guarantee it will continue for a prolonged stretch. It requires a more consistent offense to be able to jump on those stretches when this rotation does click like it is now. Since last Sunday, the M’s have scored only 13 runs in five games. The offense resembles a MASH unit. It is very streaky. Right now, that streak is downward. For me, it is inconceivable that Jones will be allowed to remain in Class AAA beyond this weekend.
Jones is hitting .314 with a .383 on-base percentage and a .584 slugging percentage for a .967 on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS). Now, that’s at Class AAA, don’t forget. No guarantee he will come close to doing that against major league pitching right away. And if Jones is promoted to Seattle, it will be for the “right away” stuff as well as the longer term. One worrisome thing for me is that Jones has drawn only 27 walks in 322 at-bats and has struck out 83 times. That could translate into a whole lot of whiffs at the major league level, where pitchers can throw off-speed and breaking stuff in any count. If Jones doesn’t catch on fast, that represents another black hole in a lineup that is looking a little too all-or-nothing of late.
That’s the downside. Here’s the upside. Having seen Raul Ibanez limping around the clubhouse the past week, I’m not convinced this team is better served with him in left field instead of Jones. Move Jones to left and put Ibanez at DH and you solve two problems at once. Why two? Because Jose Vidro, as good as he is in the clubhouse, as classy a guy as he is and as many times as he has delivered some clutch at-bats this year, is having his least productive season since becoming a full-timer in 1999.
Forget the .288 batting average. It’s as hollow as manager John McLaren’s sling when he takes it off for a champagne shower. Vidro’s OPS sits at .700 this morning, worst of his career. And .700 is the “Mendoza line” for OPS. We won’t even get into the fact that he’s a DH. Those guys are supposed to bring power to the table. Vidro’s slugging percentage of .349 is more than 100 points off his .452 career average. It’s nearly 50 points off last year’s .395 with Washington. You can’t have that. He’s had half a season and this is what he has produced. Yes, playing at Safeco Field has hurt his numbers over-all, but not that much, with a .681 OPS at Safeco and a .720 everywhere else.
Vidro’s park-adjusted OPS+ of 92 (my tip of the cap to the sabermetric crowd) means he’s eight percent below what an average hitter brings to the table. That’s not an average DH we’re talking about. We mean an average hitter — slap-hitting shortstops and all. That’s the worst OPS+ of his career as a full-timer, one point worse than in Washington last season.
And yes, he’s grounded into 14 double-plays in only 292 at-bats. His career high for double plays was 18 in 486 at-bats in 2001. My conclusion? He’s not hitting as many line drives as in the past. Not finding the gaps very often. Grounds out to the right side far too much. It’s time to forget about the money he’s owed ($12 million this year and in 2008 combined) and look at changes. As a veteran pinch-hitter, the team could do far worse than Vidro. But you have a sore-legged left fielder in Ibanez who could be a more productive DH and a guy ripping up the Class AAA ranks in Jones who should be allowed to show what he can do in left.
At the very least, calling Jones up as a fourth outfielder would be an alternative plan if the team doesn’t want to quit on Vidro just yet. Jason Ellison is being used for a few innings per week and as a pinch-runner at best. Jones would be an immediate upgrade at that role as well if you want to break him in slowly.
I can understand, somewhat, the team not being willing to bring Jones up today, with Dan Haren, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton looming for the A’s. Not exactly the guys you want to be breaking any prospect in against. But, the M’s are banged up and sore, and need some help. They could use the help now. If they decide to wait and break Jones in at home, they’ll have to pray their team can hold on and try to split the four games in Oakland. Not like Jones is likely to be an instant short-term savior. But long-term, it’s a different story.
It’s one thing for a new manager to say that his team is banged up and maybe indirectly hint that it deserves some sympathy and support from fans at this difficult juncture. I agree with that. But it’s something entirely different for a team’s management to sit back and do nothing to fix that problem when it appears to have a possible solution at-hand. Come next Thursday, I’ll expect to see this call-up announced.



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