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August 16, 2007 at 9:46 AM

Earning your playing time

One of those rare off-days today, so I really don’t want to get into a dissertation on John McLaren’s in-game tactical moves. He’s been on the job six weeks, folks. Yes, he’s made mistakes. Yes, I would have pinch-hit for Jose Lopez in the seventh yesterday (with Jose Vidro, not Ben Broussard — I want a red-hot veteran up against a guy as tough as Neshek) and worried about the pinch-running another day. But that’s baseball. McLaren is feeling his way, with the pitching moves and in-game strategy. A bench coach is one thing. Being the guy who makes suggestions to the manager and being the guy in charge in that dugout are two very different things. We can all manage from the stands, the pressbox or anywhere else. But doing it in the dugout is another animal altogether and McLaren was thrust into this situation mid-season. Feet to the fire. I refuse to unduly criticize him until he’s had at least one spring training and several months of a full season under his belt.
So yeah, he makes mistakes. Guess what? Mike Hargrove made them as well and he’d been a manager since way back. McLaren needs to get a better feel for what he’s got and for when to pull the trigger and to hold off on firing. But there has been a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes with this team that required a manager’s full attention. Stuff that goes well beyond whether to pinch-hit for a struggling second baseman.
McLaren took over a team where several veteran hitters were floundering and has had to navigate a minefield with the Adam Jones situation in only his first weeks on the job. This is not being an apologist for him. It’s simply pointing out reality.
In case some of you hadn’t noticed, this team is stuck with a fifth starter, Horacio Ramirez, who loses every five days. That may have been OK back in April, but it’s not OK heading into a pennant race. If forces the team to win at least — at least — three of the other four starts between his outings (play .750 ball in those games) just to stay in the race at the .600 clip it will likely take. This is serious stuff. This could very well cost the Mariners to miss the playoffs because asking any club to play .750 ball after giving away a game every five days is too much.
So now, McLaren and company have to find a way to turn Ramirez’s season around. Because the front office didn’t go get another starter at the July 31 trade deadline. Yes, I’d rather have Matt Morris right now. But McLaren doesn’t get to make that call. He instead is forced to have meetings with his staff and devise strategies to get a pitcher with a 13.50 ERA on the road to win in Minneapolis four days from now.
Unlike Ramirez, where there is no readily available option screaming to be used, the team did have an alternative in Jones that it could go to in the place of some slumping veterans. As I mentioned in the previous post, I was much in favor of that strategy come early July. Right now, not so much. This has nothing to do with Jones himself, trying very hard to make the transition to the major leagues while not playing every day.
But the reality of this team has changed. On July 7 in Oakland, Vidro had a .349 slugging percentage and a .698 on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) — both totals unacceptable for a DH. But since that point, when whispers of a Jones call-up were growing louder, Vidro has lifted his slugging by nearly 40 points and has his OPS up to .774. Forget the season-ending numbers though, since his poor first-half will likely make it impossible to completely salvage those. It’s the second half numbers you have to consider.
Vidro has a .480 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage since the All-Star Break — a .980 OPS. That’s elite level performance. Will Vidro keep that up the rest of the year? Of course not. But even if his slugging percentage falls 50 points from there, his traditionally high on-base numbers make him a viable DH on an every day basis.
In other words, one fewer option that can be moved around to find Jones playing time. Perhaps Vidro can play more second base. But there are defensive liabilities to consider by going that route too often. In other words, Jones won’t find much time through Vidro.
How about Raul Ibanez? Let’s see, six home runs in nine games, 13 RBI and a batting average up 14 points from .257 to .271. Is this a fluke? Not based on last season’s numbers. But no, I don’t expect to see Ibanez keep hitting six dingers every nine days. What I do think we can expect is numbers far greater than the exception to the rule Ibanez had shown all through July. There is still an argument to platoon him with Jones when there’s a lefty on the mound — given his .633 OPS against southpaws compared to .813 versus righties — but here’s the thing: does Ibanez need to play every day, get those at-bats in, to maintain the level he’s shown against right handers? Is there plenty of room for Ibanez to shoot up numbers-wise against lefties? He was at a sub-.700 OPS versus southpaws last year as well, but much higher in those situations in 2005 and 2004. This is not a clear-cut argument.
I still think Jones will see the bulk of his playing time against lefties. But let’s be clear about this: Jones hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard in the limited amount of time he’s been here.
I know several of you are going to jump down my throat for saying that, so pipe down a second and read what I am writing. Nobody is saying Jones has had it easy. Maybe he would do more if he got to play every day. More than an awful .292 on-base percentage and a horrible .304 slugging percentage. But how much better would he be? This isn’t Shelley Duncan, a 27-year-old first-timer hitting six home runs and poisting an 1.147 OPS in his first 16 games for the New York Yankees.
If anything, the idea of Jones has had a much deeper impact on the team so far than the reality of Jones. The threat of Jones taking away their playing time has arguably helped to kickstart the seasons of both Vidro and Ibanez. They’ll never admit it. But competition never hurt any team, whether it’s in spring training or the second half of the season.
When I advocated calling Jones up at the expense of Ibanez and Vidro back in July, it was because neither of those guys was getting the job done. What was the harm, I wondered, in sending out a clubhouse message that playing time has to be earned? I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the harm in making things a little less comfortable for some of the veterans. That’s where Jose Guillen and I differ in our opinions. I don’t think that having been members of a team that happens to be winning means that every player on that team has contributed equally. So far, Jason Ellison is the only one to lose his job because of the Jones move and I don’t see that it was really all that unfair.
But things have changed in other areas. Vidro and Ibanez both appear to have found their strokes. Even if they don’t maintain their current pace — and they almost certainly won’t — obtaining merely the previously-expected production levels out of them relegates Jones to the status of an ordinary late-season call-up. And ordinary call-ups, as we all know, don’t get much playing time in a pennant race. They just don’t. This team was not built last winter around the idea of Jones being an everyday contributor. If the guys the team was built around are now contributing at the expected levels, Jones becomes add-on material. An afterthought of sorts.
None of this is his fault. I think Jones will be a very good player some day. But this is all about the next six weeks. It has to be. And Jones has not earned his playing time yet. He probably won’t get a fair shot at doing that if Vidro and Ibanez keep going. How can he? And I have a feeling most of those people around baseball who, like me, kept scratching their heads as to why Jones wasn’t up here in early July will be revising their thinking as well.
We can all see the value of a DH with an OPS of .980 over the past month. We can all see the value of a left fielder with six home runs in nine games and an AL Player of the Week honor in his belt. Just as we can see the liability in rolling the dice too often on a Class AAA call-up who so far has struggled in his limited exposure to games.
Again, I repeat, nobody is blaming Jones. But don’t be surprised to see him become an increasingly marginal lineup presence down the stretch. The Mariners have to go with the hot hands right now. They don’t have the luxury of wondering whether computer projections for Vidro and Ibanez the remainder of the year will turn out to be accurate or not. All they can afford to worry about is the next series. This is a six-week sprint coming up. No numbers put out right now, in mid-August, can predict how this team’s mindset will hold up if it finds itself in two different playoff battles the final week of September.
Most teams would prefer to use veterans in those situations, including this one. And when the veterans are earning their playing time, it becomes a decision that is made for you. And hey, it’s not like Jones is going anywhere. If Ibanez drops off a cliff on the next road trip, you can always play Jones in left. If Vidro goes 2-for-25 like Richie Sexson did on a recent homestand, you can get Jones into some games until Vidro snaps out of it.
But right now, from where I see it, unless things change, Jones is on the outside looking in the rest of the way.

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