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

September 17, 2007 at 11:16 AM

What comes next?

NOTE TO “PHILLIP” (1:20 p.m.): No, I never get tired or angry when people respond to what I write with something articulate. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t respond. Or if they all worshipped every word I wrote. None of us who write blogs expect to be agreed with by everyone. I’ve done this newspaper thing for 16 years and I haven’t had as much fun as I have this year with the two-way interaction with readers. It’s why I post responses up here instead of within the comments section. I think it’s an important part of what makes this blog work.
Believe me, I expected every word that was on the USS Mariner site and would have been shocked at anything different. That’s not a knock. All of you should read it. Some of the points “Dave” makes are very interesting. I don’t think all of them can be practically applied to a major league baseball team. Some GMs might attempt some of what he advocates. Others won’t risk their jobs. As I’ve said before, none of us has all the answers. I think some things are done more easily in theory than in actual practise and I try to keep that in mind when I write for all of you, or criticize the team, as has been done often in this space. My approach may differ from theirs, or the other fine blogs out there that I mentioned. A lot of them don’t place much stock in the human side of the game, where things like “chemistry” or self-doubt enter the equation. Since I do get the clubhouse access and interact with players more, based on my job, it would be wrong of me to discount these things if I sense it factors into decision-making. Just because you can’t quantify something does not make it irrelevant, or non-existent. Just as some “traditional” media types fear the stats-world because they weren’t math whizzes and can’t grasp new numbers, I think there is a part of the more serious stats-minded community that fears intangibles because of their lack of playing experience or access to players and teams.
So, both sides tend to discount the stuff they don’t excel at. And let’s face it, you’re never going to place “chemistry” or “player emotions” into a convenient stats-box. You can’t do that with something that isn’t quantifiable. So, should we just ignore it? Not on this blog. I told you before, that I want this to be a place where both communities co-exist. And that means some of you will have to live with OPS, and others with “the human element”. I’ve talked to too many people with too many years in this game who swear to me that things like “chemistry” do exist. Doesn’t mean I’m going to use it to hide behind whenever I encounter a stats argument I can’t refute. But I also won’t be so arrogant as to tell those men they’re all out to lunch and discount their words simply because I’m not brilliant enough to devise a way to formulate it and package it into some neat little logical box. But if any of you want to tell those men that, or say something critical about me, on this site, please feel free. That’s what we’re all about.

On to the post…
Just arrived in San Francisco, ahead of tonight’s series opener in Oakland. We’ll try to keep today’s blog entry shorter than yesterday’s. Some of you still seem confused by the notion that it’s OK to disagree with a segment of the fan base without “condemning” fans entirely. I don’t know how we got to the point of such extremism, where unless someone condemns everything about the Mariners’ front office and coaching staff, then they are apologizing for them. But if there is one thing I hope to accomplish here this year, it is to rid you of such all-or-nothing views. I am appalled that this team has lost 17 of 22. The idea that John McLaren should be fired because he used Rick White instead of J.J. Putz in that one game in Cleveland is a view I don’t share. The idea that McLaren won’t return next year because his team has won only five games going on 3 1/2 of the most important weeks of the season makes a whole lot more sense to me. For me, these are important games upcoming for McLaren, who has to demonstrate an ability to control this squad and somehow get this nosedive righted.
Otherwise, I don’t know that he’s demonstrated enough to be given a full year. I figured it to be automatic a week ago, a point of common courtesy more than anything. But this is a slide, as we mentioned in Detroit over a week ago, of historic proportions. All bets are off if the M’s slink out of this campaign as winners of only 82 or 83 games.
One more thing, to answer some questions from yesterday: Jose Vidro cannot play more than one or two games a week in the field. It’s been determined that his legs won’t hold up under that kind of strain, meaning making him the regular first baseman was never an option. His second half OPS in the high .880s would be the fourth best among full-time AL DH types if maintained over a full-year. To do that, though, he has to keep his legs fresh.
Which brings us to this morning’s topic, fueled largely by a comment yesterday from “Donovan” one of our more level-headed posters this season. It is indeed time to start looking ahead to the 2008 season. Many of the same things we debated yesterday will have to be confronted next spring.
The way I see it, Adam Jones does have to be inserted in left field to start next season. The arguments we made yesterday for keeping Ibanez in left during the playoff stretch run this season will not apply over a full 2008 campaign. I watched Ibanez on a couple of balls yesterday and thought to myself that Jones would have caught them. Neither was directly attributable to the loss: one led to a hit in a scoreless inning, the other on a ball to the gap led to a couple of runs that turned a 4-1 game into a 6-1 affair.
But over a full season, those start to really add up. This team’s starting pitching is woefully inadequate, meaning that any defensive help that can minimize the runs allowed should be optimized. Jones in left, Ichiro in center and Jose Guillen in right would be my way to go. Guillen demonstrated the winning type of intensity level needed over the past two months, a level many of his teammates did not reach. I’d feel a lot more comfortable going into a season with him out there than Wladimir Balentien, namely because having two “rookies” in three outfield spots is not a formula for playoff success. Too much of a learning curve and I’d rather use Balentien as a trade chit.
That leaves four similar type players for only two positions: DH and first base.
Raul Ibanez, Jose Vidro, Richie Sexson and Ben Broussard are the guys who will have to fill those spots. I truly believe this is the winter you trade away Sexson, even at the cost of eating a huge chunk of salary. There could be some interest in San Francisco or another NL city at a discount cost. I think the bridge between Sexson and Seattle fans has been burned. One strikeout in the home opener next year and the boo-birds will be all over him. Of the three remaining players, Ibanez is going to lead the team in runs batted in this year and that’s something — regardless of how unfashionable that stat has become — that still can’t be overlooked. Ibanez had a big second half and really only suffered in two of the season’s six months. The team could do worse than having him as a first baseman, a position he’s played before and which he could easily slide into if given a full off-season and spring to prepare.
If you keep Sexson, then you can’t give him three or four months to get his bat going. You must pull him from daily duty in April if he repeats his past struggles and platoon him at the very least. This is not, is goes without saying, the preferred route.
Vidro remains the DH, with the hope that his second-half numbers were the rule and not the exception. As I’ve said, his on-base numbers are very high for a DH, meaning he’s got some slugging points he can afford to give away. At an OPS of .850 or so, Vidro is quite acceptable. At .790, not so much. Where does that leave Broussard? It’s tempting to bring him back as a platoon player with Ibanez at first, perhaps spelling Vidro at DH a couple of times per week. But Broussard’s salary will climb through arbitration and at $5 million, he’s quite expensive to use only once or twice per week. The team would have to commit to getting Broussard in there four or five times as a super-sub (twice at first base, twice at DH, once in the outfield) to make that viable.
It is possible, but not with the rigid way Seattle currently uses its bench. To its detriment, I might add. I just don’t understand the way the M’s use their bench. Misuse it would be a better word. Why even make that Jason Ellison deal at spring training? This franchise must show more flexibility going forward.
I like the way McLaren has inserted Willie Bloomquist at second in recent games. The notion of having a more experienced second baseman come in to “push” Jose Lopez would not be a bad idea. If not Bloomquist, then someone else. Mark Loretta made a lot of sense to me at the trade deadline. Lopez needs to be pushed. He has a lot to prove next season. His career, I dare say it, might hang in the balance. It didn’t take long for Eric Hinske to go from a rookie of the year third baseman to a a fringe utility outfielder, now with the Red Sox. Lopez needs to play the game better and maintain his focus throughout a season if he’s to remain an everyday second baseman. This team needs better defense than he provided this year. Yuniesky Betancourt needs it from a double-play partner. No sense having Betancourt do his acrobatics if Lopez can’t complete the double-play pivot effectively.
Adrian Beltre is a lock at third, both offensively and defensively. No trouble there. At catcher, the team needs Kenji Johjima to become a better defensive receiver. He can throw guys out but he still has to frame the ball better. There is depth moving up through the minor league ranks so this is not an area for concern just yet.
In the bullpen, the only real question mark for me remains the eighth inning. J.J. Putz is a lock and George Sherrill and Eric O’Flaherty have established themselves as the No. 1 and No. 2 lefties. I don’t see room for Arthur Rhodes here next year, though having him in camp next spring for depth and to “push” O’Flaherty wouldn’t be a bad idea. I see Sean Green and possibly Jon Huber as seventh inning types in a playoff bullpen. For the eighth, I like a guy who throws hard and can handle lefties. Mark Lowe would be the guy if healthy, but that’s quite an “if”. Not sure the team will exercise its option on Chris Reitsma, another big “if”. Another arm might have to be brought in for the eighth. Yes, you could use Green there to start next year, but I’m just not sure he’s the best fit at this stage. Depending on who is in the starting rotation next year, the team has an abundance of “long man” types in the system and Ryan Rowland-Smith has certainly proven himself in that regard.
Now, the biggie. All of the above stuff will mean little unless Seattle upgrades the starting rotation.
There will be at least one opening when Jeff Weaver leaves as a free-agent. The other could come by the team non-tendering Horacio Ramirez. The best Ramirez showed this year was in the mid-August-to-early September stretch of 5 2/3 inning outings in which he came a pitch or two away from “quality starts”. In other words, he’s a fifth starter at best. You’ve already got a cheaper option in Ryan Feierabend who can do that.
Yes, it was a bad trade. Even with pitching as scarce as it is on the open market, I don’t see the M’s tendering a contract to Ramirez. If they didn’t to Joel Pineiro last year, how do they justify Ramirez this year?
That leaves Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Feierabend in the rotation and it’s not good enough. Even if Brandon Morrow could be rushed into a starting role — which I doubt will happen by next spring, but you never know — that’s not a playoff rotation.
Free-agency looks bleak as far as upgrades go. Best hope? A trade. Those young prospects the team has stockpiled will have to go. Depending on who plays where, you probably give up Balentien and Jeff Clement. Maybe even Jones if the pitcher coming back here is Johan Santana or somebody equal to what Hernandez currently offers. It sounds like a big pill to swallow and it is. But heading into 2008 with a rotation equal to this one is asking for trouble. A payroll this high — $107 million — cannot afford to be sabotaged by arms unable to offer up five or six innings when it counts.
It will not be an easy task. Teams are well aware of Bill Bavasi’s predicament …quot; if indeed he’s to be the one calling the shots — and will demand a hefty ransom. My advice? If you’re going to give up blue-chip types, make sure the arm coming back is more of a “sure thing”. No more Rafael-Soriano-for-Ramirez type gambles. No more “projects” that can be worked through. Forget the “pitch to contact” specialists. Bring in a guy who can strike people out when he needs to and has some live “stuff” in his arm. Yeah, I know. Easier said that done. But at this stage, if Seattle wants to contend in 2008 (we’ll talk about 2009 or 2010 another time) it will have to “give up the farm” to bring in a better starter. And if you’re giving it up, you’d better darn well get something back this time.
M’s fans have had their expectations raised by the team’s performance this year, at least until three weeks ago. They will expect nothing less. Bring in more mediocrity and this franchise is asking for serious trouble.

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