Happy New Year to all of you. It’s the time of year where nothing is happening, baseball-wise, at least with the home team. The Oakland A’s just got a whole lot easier to pitch against with a deal today. No other baseball news, unless you count Brian McNamee’s lawyer threatening to sue Roger Clemens for libel if he talks too much next Sunday on 60 Minutes. Now, you see? That’s what I’m talking about. So far, McNamee, the personal trainer who blew the whistle on Clemens in the Mitchell Report, is taking more serious steps to safeguard his reputation than Clemens is. I mean, if Clemens feels so wronged, then take the obvious step — sue McNamee. Should be a great TV day on Sunday, what with all the football and news magazines. Clemens, by the way, apparently told 60 Minutes he was injected with lidocaine and vitamin B-12, not steroids. McNamee is already calling BS on that.
Anyhow, you’ve heard my take on steroids for now. No, this story is not going away, either on the homefront here in Seattle or the national scene. Can’t wait for Jose Canseco’s new book. Wonder if he’ll add any chapters on A-Rod to back up the things he was saying last month. Should be a hoot. But for now, let’s take a look ahead at the 2008 version of the Mariners and see what lies in store. I’ve identified my Top-5 list of things the M’s must address before the season begins. Have at it.
Let’s start with the most pressing areas of concern and work our way on down:
#1 — Another starting pitcher
Yes, this is the most obvious thing and it’s been written about all winter. Trouble is, it’s been written about in speculative fashion all winter. Nothing is really happening. So far, the Mariners appear marginally better on paper with the addition of Carlos Silva. I do believe Silva is a better back-of-the-rotation arm than Jeff Weaver was. The numbers back me up on that. So, in theory, the Mariners could win a few more games with him there. Then again, maybe not. After all, Horacio Ramirez won more games than he lost at the back of the rotation last season, so maybe things even out a little this coming year and the addition of Silva means Seattle only breaks even. Follow?
In other words, Silva doesn’t make or break this club. An impact, top-of-the-rotation arm, like Johan Santana of the Twins, or Erik Bedard of the Orioles, just might. Thing is, everyone keeps waiting for someone else to blink first. The Boston Red Sox are said to be negotiating with themselves over Santana and it looks like they’re driving a hard bargain. One month after the Yankees dropped out of the Santana sweepstakes and the pitcher is still in Minnesota.
My take on it all is that the Santana talks are very much hampering discussions on the Bedard front. The Orioles are famous for asking ridiculously high returns on trades of top players and appear to be doing that with their Bedard suitors. Once the price for Santana is set, there should be at least some cursory guidelines on what type of player package it will take to get Bedard. But for now, the O’s are asking the moon and the M’s and Cincinnati Reds — the two most obvious Bedard bidders — are unwilling to pay. The Orioles, let’s remember, don’t have to trade Bedard for a package that’s just “OK”. They could always dump him at the July 31 trade deadline and get an “OK” deal.
The Mariners are far more desperate than that. Go into the season without any serious improvements to the starting rotation and the chances of winning the AL West are slim indeed. But giving up a premium package of talent, for a pitcher who is only under club control through 2009, is a huge risk. Tough spot these Mariners are in. What else is new? That’s where things stand, Don’t write in asking me when a deal will get done because if Bill Bavasi and Andy MacPhail don’t know, I sure don’t. But it’s pretty apparent that this is why things have been at a standstill for four weeks.
Seattle does have other options, like signing a Matt Clement, or Kyle Lohse. But it’s not the first choice and will not have the same impact. It’s not even certain that Bedard would have enough of an impact. Like I said, this is a pressing concern.
#2 — An eighth-inning set-up man
Forgotten amidst all the Adam Jones trade hype of this past winter was all the similar buzz going on last July when it came to strengthening the Seattle bullpen. The Mariners were woefully short in the back of the bullpen in August and September when it came to anyone not named J.J. Putz. Many of you did not want Jones to be traded for any relief pitchers, be they Eric Gagne, Octavio Dotel, or anyone else. As has been well-documented, none of the main relievers on-the-market last summer did anything impressive afterwards. As has also been documented, the inability of the M’s to bolster their late-inning bullpen helped cost them their 2007 season. If you have a mediocre starting rotation, you either improve it by adding a starter, or you “shorten the game” by improving the bullpen. The Mariners did neither and now, it’s 2008. For the record, I’m not a believer that you can transfer the stats of a player from team to hypothetical team. In other words, the fact that Gagne stunk in Boston does not, for me, mean the same thing would have happened in Seattle. Different places, different sets of circumstances. Now, if the Mariners can use Jones to secure Santana or Bedard, well then, hey, I’ll be the first to say that holding off last summer was the right move. For now, the Mariners, by not adding a reliever last summer, essentially sacrificed a season but held on to a top prospect in return. That’s the net result as we know it.
Where the bullpen is concerned, the questions remain. If Brandon Morrow stays in the rotation, or gets traded, then one of the harder throwing righthanded relievers is out of the equation. George Sherrill is a top situational lefty, but the jury is still out on whether he can be effective against righthanders all season. A left-right platoon of Sherrill and Sean Green could be the answer. But Green will have to show he can at least retire some lefties on his own and that he can build off 2007. Mark Lowe? His career is still in doubt. Counting on him to fill the eighth inning role is stretching things a bit. Of course, a year of experience (not to mention arm endurance) could make all of those names just a little bit better heading into 2008. But when you consider how tired this group was at the end of 2007, the lack of any additions (and quite possibly a big subtraction in Morrow) do make this an area to keep an eye on.
#3 — Jose Lopez at second base
When the Mariners went out and signed Carlos Silva for $48 million, they did so under one large assumption that several defensive metrics have thrown into question. The assumption is that the M’s have the makings of an Alan Trammell-Lou Whitaker type infield defense in second baseman Jose Lopez and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. In fact, just mentioning the former Tigers combo in the same breath as the current M’s duo may be more insulting to the old-timers than first thought. If you throw out fielding percentage, truly an outdated statistic, there aren’t many defensive measurements out there that suggest Betancourt-Lopez are even an above-average combination in terms of range. The people who see them and instruct them daily believe that they could be. But that’s a huge leap of faith based on what we saw in 2007. The problem with Lopez isn’t just in the field. In fact, his major woes last season came at the plate. The team is shrugging it all off as a “focus” problem for now and there is merit to it. Lopez did have good reason to lose focus in 2007 after his brother died in a June motorcycle accident. He committed a series of brain cramps on the defensive side — things like failing to record even a single out on a potential double-play grounder.
Now, I don’t know why he had a focus problem last year. It may have been his brother, though the latter was alive and well in 2006 when Lopez also faded in the second half. I can guarantee you he’ll focus better next season if he values his future in the organization. But will that be enough? Will Lopez become a victim of trying to focus too much on doing the right thing? For me, the biggest defensive concerns are his offensive ones. If Lopez continues to struggle at the plate, will his defensive game suffer as he scrambles to find an offensive solution?
When I look around the Mariners infield, I feel a lot more comfortable about Adrian Beltre at third and Betancourt at shortstop than I do about Lopez at second. And this infield is so pivotal to this team’s chances. Whether it’s Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, or Silva, the Mariners are a team of “pitch-to-contact” types who need their infielders to catch the ball and turn as many double-plays as they can. All three of those acquisitions were made with the assumption of a stellar infield defense in Seattle. As I’ve mentioned already, those assumptions may have been more about hype than truth.
#4 — Who plays the outfield?
This is not as big a concern for me as is the infield, mainly because Ichiro in center helps make up for some of the outfield ground the guys in left and right don’t normally cover. There are some defensive metrics suggesting Ichiro is not as good a defender as he’s made out to be, but I’m not buying into those just yet. The Ichiro I watched last season turned plenty of surefire extra-base hits into routine-looking outs. His bat is what it is and his consistency on offense is the best part of Ichiro still being in Seattle. The rest of the outfield is what concerns me.
It’s assumed that Adam Jones in right field will add a defensive component that was missing with Jose Guillen last season. We’ll see. It’s still going to be the first year full year in the majors for Jones and nothing is guaranteed. Jones will also be hard-pressed to match Guillen’s offense. He certainly won’t be hitting in the heart of the order, as Guillen did for much of last year. That part of Guillen’s departure will hurt, since Richie Sexson is hardly a sure thing any more as a middle-of-the-order hitter. So, while Jones could be a break-even proposition, or even slightly better than Guillen, as an overall offensive-defensive package, this team still needs hitters who can bat in the Nos. 3-5 spots in the order.
That brings us to the remaining outfielder, Raul Ibanez, certainly the most dependable middle-of-the-order hitter the team has had the past several seasons. Ibanez is a perennial 20-homer, 100-RBI guy, who should be slugging .500 or better. His big question mark is on the defensive side. No matter which statistic is used to measure it, he wasn’t very good in the outfield last season. I’m not going to go as far as some folks and suggest that his defense negates all of his offense — which it does not. But he is more of a liability in the field than a help at this stage. His bat is certainly needed, in a first base or DH role where the fielding aspect is mitigated somewhat. But as of right now, he’s the starting left fielder.
All told, the team can survive with a below average defensive left fielder if the guys in right field and center project to be above average. But that assumes Jones is staying put. And in that case, with a mediocre rotation, even a good outfield defense will only make you marginally better. But what happens to the outfield defense if Jones goes? Ah, good question. After all, a team with a solid rotation might have problems if its two corner outfield spots are black holes. Again, not as serious a problem as with a below-average infield defense, but a concern nonetheless. Wladimir Balentien is not this team’s first choice to be manning a right field spot next season.
#5 — The coaching staff
I cut manager John McLaren a ton of slack in this corner last season becasue I believed that he made the right moves in playing his veterans over Adam Jones and also because of the situation he was thrown into. McLaren knew all summer that he needed another bullpen arm. It’s not his fault that Rick White and John Parrish were the best solutions his front office could come up with. McLaren navigated a political minefield for three months on a team that was not his to begin with. It was only his first year back in Seattle as a coach last season and all the stories about Lou Piniella and the glory days weren’t going to cut it if he made a series of wholesale changes once Mike Hargrove left.
But this is different. This is McLaren’s team now. He had his Mulligan, his chance to learn how to manage on-the-job for half a season. He will enter 2008 with an entire winter behind him. He will have had a chance to hire his own coaching staff, which leans decisively towards the veteran side. It’s clear McLaren felt he did not have the right people in the right places to lean on as a manager last season, particularly when things fell apart in September. Now, he’s got his own guys in-place and that excuse is no longer valid.
In other words, McLaren must do more to avoid being the subject of so much post-game discussion on this and other web sites next season. Some of his in-game moves in 2007 were questionable at best. He looked like a man entirely out of his element on too many occasions. Yes, every manager makes his share of mistakes several times per year. But McLaren will have to cut down on those mistakes. He’ll have to show more flexibility than he did last season when it came to moving runners over, or handling his bullpen. Part of that, as I’ve mentioned, can be excused away to his coming in late. But he’s got to show improvement. And his coaches, especially Mel Stottlemyre, will have to come as advertised. No one is going to question Stottlemyre’s reputation. After all, it’s what got him hired. Now, he has to work some magic with a pretty ordinary group of starting pitchers.
This team needed an above average coaching staff to have a shot at winning anything last season. It did not have that in the end. This year, that staff needs to be better. And not just better, either. Demonstrably better. The gap between Seattle and the Angels is large. It will get even bigger with too many of the coaching blunders, either on the bases or in the dugout, that were seen in situations that counted last season.