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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

September 4, 2007 at 8:30 AM

Youth and experience

NOTE: To “Rupert Jones” in the comments thread, OK, I’ll bite. How many games has Ibanez lost the team because of his defense over the past month? One? Two? How many has he won with his bat? Four? Five? I don’t know offhand. But you’re making the argument for Jones’ defense, so you tell this “dinosaur” the answer please.
On to the post…
Just got back from doing a segment on ESPN’s First Take program, using a studio in Midtown Manhattan. My hotel is on the Upper East Side, for those of you who know New York, so it was a bit of a trek. The guy who was on just before me was the excellent Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, who brought up a good on-air point about the Roger Clemens injury and how it will impact the New York Yankees. Kernan, like me, was also in the Yankee clubhouse post-game yesterday and noticed the gloom inside. He said the arrival of Clemens had added a much-needed spark and lift, not only on the field, but inside the clubhouse itself. The feeling of having another guy who had been-there, done that, as opposed to the unknown.
This isn’t a matter of simply plugging in someone else’s numbers to replace the stats that Clemens might not be able to bring to the table anymore. In many ways, major leaguers are no different from the folks all of you used to play with back in High School or Little League. Remember the star pitcher, or slugger the team used to count on? Remember how deflating it could be if that player got grounded, or couldn’t get a ride to the game and had to miss it? Well, major leaguers are a lot bigger, with more ego and money, but they aren’t a whole lot different from the rest of us. They have the star players they lean on for support. Clemens was one of those the Yankees leaned on.
Without him, this starting rotation just became a whole lot more suspect. Mike Mussina has been terrible of late. He didn’t look all that great yesterday, running into his share of trouble the M’s took some advantage of. What I saw didn’t convince me that Mussina can go six strong innings. It’s the reason he was demoted to the bullpen in the first place.
There has been a lot of online chatter recently devoted to the promotion of minor leaguers by some teams for the stretch run. Talk of how some organizations, unlike Seattle’s, are unafraid of throwing an untested player into the waters to see how they will swim.
That’s all good, but I think that some of the dialogue that’s taken place represents a gross mischaracterization of what’s actually gone on.
First off, there are very few parallels to be drawn between the Adam Jones situation in Seattle and the ones regarding young call-ups Joba Chamberlain in New York and Cameron Maybin in Detroit.
The Tigers cut outfielder Craig Monroe and replaced him with the 20-year-old Maybin on Aug. 17. Monroe has a .635 on-base-plus slugging percentage this season, which is well below even Richie Sexson in terms of futility and is far inferior to what teams can afford to carry in the outfield. He hadn’t had a monthly OPS greater than .575 since May. So, World Series component from last year on not, Monroe could not keep playing for the Tigers.
As for the Yankees, they had bottomed-out bullpen-wise at the time Chamberlain got the call on Aug. 7. The team was already struggling rotation-wise and was in desperate need of a late-inning solution to help “shorten the game” for starters.
So far, Chamberlain has worked out. He has yet to allow a run in nine outings, while allowing only nine baserunners in 11 1/3 innings over that span. Chamberlain is going to be a starting pitcher for the team, possibly next season, so the Yanks have set guildelines for not working him on consecutive days, giving him days off, etc. But he has become an effective eighth inning shutdown man on days he does pitch.
As for Maybin, he’s gone 6-for-38 (.158) with a .554 OPS in his first dozen games. Not exactly the spark his team was looking for. Which goes to show you just how risky it can be inserting a call-up in the daily lineup. Which is why teams are often reluctant to make such moves unless it’s absolutely necessary.
If this was July 1, some of you might have a stronger case with me if you’d have argued that Jones had to be called up to share playing time with Raul Ibanez and Jose Vidro. I actually made that case right here on this blog back in early July, when Ibanez was hobbling around on a sore hamstring and his hitting numbers were heading south.
Ibanez on July 1 was in an 8-for-43 (.186) slump that was obscured by his .870 OPS in June. Within a week, it was an 11-for-64 (.172) slump in which Ibanez did not appear to be physically functioning up to capabilities. In fact, Ibanez had only seven doubles and two home runs from June 12 until July 24 — nearly a six week span. He would finish July with only a .503 OPS. For a guy the M’s were counting on for power, those numbers could potentially decimate an offense — which is why the calls for Jones persisted all through July.
Same with Vidro, who for three months had hit at a near .300 pace, but by July 1 had managed nine doubles, three home runs and a .697 OPS. Once again, a very risky power shortage for a team in which Ibanez seemed to be dropping off a cliff and which was still waiting for Richie Sexson’s bat to show up.
The M’s don’t have an outstanding quintet of starting pitchers. The way this team wins is with a shutdown bullpen and a streaky group of hitters. Take away three of those power spots at first base, DH and left field, and the recipe for disaster is at-hand. So yes, in early July, or even mid-July, there was an excellent case for promoting Jones right away. For whatever reason, the team held off. Any wins that were lost during that stretch can never be regained.
Jones was finally called up right at month’s end. But by then, some of the desperation that had existed earlier had quelled. Vidro managed six doubles in July — two thirds as many as he’d hit in the first three months of the season to that point. He’s added another four doubles and three home runs in August, along with the steady slew of singles needed to keep his bat over .300.
Since the All-Star Break, he’s hit .358 with an .897 OPS which is more than the team ever expected from him. And those numbers have been compiled over a two-month stretch, so the pace is being sustained — even with a slight dropoff here and there. Nobody goes through a season without slumps. But two months of near .900 OPS out of Vidro means there is no crisis, no desperation where he is concerned.
Ibanez worked out problems with his stance and swing and posted a 1.129 OPS with nine home runs and six doubles in August. When a player’s OPS goes over 1.000 you leave him alone. Defensive questions, unless he is committing an error per game, become moot.
So, there you have it. By August, the conditions of desperation that prompted the Tigers and Yankees to “go young” were not in evidence in Seattle. Based on Ibanez’s track record, the team had reasons to expect his OPS would stay above the .800 range it needs to be for the duration of the season. The .503 OPS of July appeared to be the exception rather than the rule.
And that’s why, I think, making this a “young guys” versus “proven veterans” argument is somewhat off track where Seattle is concerned. The Mariners already have their Joba Chamberlain on the team. His name is Brandon Morrow and, last I checked, he was still being used in some set-up situations.
The issue has become muddled with the recent arrivals of Rick White and John Parrish on the scene. Again, this isn’t an argument that older players are always better than unproven ones. These were additions driven by fear that the younger arms were starting to slow down, may have lacked the endurance to hold-up in September and the fact the bullpen is relatively inexperienced when it comes to playoff race pressure.
Were White and Parrish the answers? Apparently not. At least not so far. But that doesn’t automatically eliminate the questions. And this particular question about Seattle’s bullpen is legitimate. The answers have been rather thin since after the July 31 trade deadline. But any team that keeps asking itself the question without at least trying to answer it is, in my book, setting itself up for failure.
As for the starters, the M’s appear content to stick with Horacio Ramirez until it’s shown he isn’t up to the task. Getting through the last few Ramirez outings was big for the M’s, despite losing two of the three games. Ramirez left the Mariners in a position to at least tie, if not win both his recent outings and did not give up a ton of runs. Right now, there doesn’t appear to be anybody from Class AAA capable of doing better at the major league level. At least, nobody who has stood on his ear with lights-out numbers. I do think the addition of Esteban Loaiza might have been beneficial. Loaiza’s $7 million salary for next season fits right in for what mid-range starters are now being paid. Loaiza went seven strong in his Dodgers debut yesterday.
Young starters carry more of a risk factor. Yes, we saw Clay Bucholtz throw that no-hitter for the Red Sox the other day. And Ian Kennedy of the Yankees had a strong debut as well. But the Red Sox, not feeling any undue desperation over their rotation, are hesitant to start Bucholtz again in fear of wearing out his arm.
The chances for success among young starters breaking in can also differ from that of short-inning relievers. Twins GM Terry Ryan, noted for his ability to break young starters in with his club, mentioned in an interview after the Bucholtz debut that short relievers need only be successful for an inning at a time. That, he said, is much easier to manage and maintain than finding a young starter who can hold up for six innings at a time.
Seattle now has Ryan Feierabend in the bullpen should anything go wrong with Ramirez. There are other relievers who can move in to pitch multiple innings should he, Jeff Weaver, or others falter early. Have the Mariners made all the right moves this season? No they have not. There are areas of weakness, most notably in the rotation, that went unfixed at the July 31 deadline and might come back to bite this team down the road. Either through that rotation needing another arm, or a bullpen showing signs of slowing down.
But to lump it all together, citing the young call-ups made by other clubs, seems to me to be a tad shortsighted. There were different needs, different situations in the Yankees and Tigers cases.
Year-end stats compilations are important in Fantasy Leagues and whether Ibanez or Vidro can finish with an OPS above .800 for an entire year may be critical to some fantasy owners. I can understand their angst over how the total April-through-September numbers will look.
But for the M’s and their wild-card hopes, they merely need the pair to keep doing what they’ve done since early-August. The winners or losers in MLB are to be determined over the next 3 1/2 weeks. This is about who has the best chance of putting up the biggest numbers in that short time-span. The M’s don’t have to make desperation moves to find room for Jones when they have two guys already putting up the numbers they need. And that is why, for now, Jones is primarily sitting while Maybin and Chamberlain keep on playing.



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