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May 19, 2008 at 2:44 PM

Clement, Reed, Vidro and other fun

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Now, that’s a hotel room view. Just arrived here in Detroit and am in my room on the 58th floor of the downtown Renaissance Center, which served as the building used for police headquarters during filming of the 1980s movie Robocop. You can see Comerica Park off in the distance and, just to the right of it, Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions (and where the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl two years ago).
Nice to get off the plane and see our comments thread pushing 100 even before 2 p.m. Pacific time. On an off-day at that. Many of you are charged-up. Some need a little de-amping, but that’s nothing unusual on this blog anymore, is it?
I think the big disconnect some of us have, or, more specifically, some of you have with what I write is the tendancy I see among those writing in to view things in extremes. Many of you want to see Jeremy Reed playing left field and Raul Ibanez as the DH. You don’t want to see Jose Vidro as a full-time DH any more and feel that Jeff Clement will ultimately be a solid, everyday contributor.
The funny thing is, we all share similar beliefs. It’s just the degrees of change we disagree on. Many of you want to see those moves happening yesterday. Or, in the next five minutes. What I’ve tried to share on this blog with you the past 15 months, if nothing else, is that real life major league baseball is not a game of Strat-O-Matic or MLB 2K8. Changes rarely happen as instantly as fans would like to see and there are reasons behind that. I tried to point some of these things out to you last August when the Adam Jones drama unfolded, telling you that few teams were going to pull hot-hitting veterans out of a lineup in order to give playing time to a rookie outfielder who could have the growing pains we’re seeing from both Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien. Not to mention Jones himself in Baltimore this year. Tried to tell you that over a small period of time, in the heat of a playoff race, the stakes become higher and rookies won’t always have a fair evaluation time before the need to get it done takes priority. That and the possibility of “losing the clubhouse” in the event Jones was a short-term bust made for a compelling case for not using him as a regular. That’s ultimately the course the team took. And when its season fell apart, offense had little to do with it. Defense played a small part, but ultimately it was a junky starting rotation and burned out bullpen that cost Seattle its season.
Two weeks ago, I told you that Clement and Balentien were not going to have the usual grace periods to get their games going, if they were going to help this club. Told you it wasn’t fair to either of them, but that’s life. Some of you paid attention, others continued to argue that it wasn’t fair. Again, I agree with you that it’s not fair. I agree with those of you continuing to re-hash the same argument today, as if it’s going to make any difference whatsoever in changing unfair reality. No, it’s not fair that Clement only had 15 games to prove himself. Right. Agreed. Let’s move on. This sentiment has nothing to do with the realities behind why Clement was optioned back to Class AAA.
Clement and Balentien were brought up here to help the team get better. They have not done this. Balentien is a marginal-to-decent improvement over Brad Wilkerson, so that’s why he stays for now. That and there aren’t many options left to replace him with. But take away a few meaningless home runs in games all lost by his team — one was a three-run homer in the seventh inning of an 8-0 game, the other a two-run shot in the eighth inning of a 10-6 contest and the final one a solo blast in the ninth inning of a 4-1 affair — and that .453 slugging percentage all of a sudden doesn’t look so hot in front of a terrible .265 on-base percentage. So, while Balentien has not been an all-out flop, he’s hardly tearing it up for a team that needs more offense out of its power positions when it matters.
In Clement’s case, he did nothing to better the numbers that Vidro had put up in the DH spot before him. Since Clement and Balentien were called up, the team has gone 5-13 and dropped 7 1/2 games out of the division lead. On the day the pair was called up, the M’s were 13-14 and only 3 1/2 games out. So, the season has gone downhill in a hurry.


Now, before you rush off screaming that it’s unfair to blame two rookies for the team’s nosedive since they arrived, once again…I agree with you. The whole idea of having them “rescue” a season was unfair and a bit ridiculous, regardless of what their Class AAA numbers were. Everyone assumed there would be some struggle and that they’d still be an improvement simply by putting up league average numbers. Balentien did and Clement did not. Yes, 15 games is a small sample size and it’s unfair. But that was their plight. They had to get going quickly, or the team they were called upon to rescue was going to go down the tubes even faster.
Neither of them has been great. Clement was awful over the small sample size and Balentien, while better than Wilkerson, hasn’t done enough to overcome the team’s other shortcomings.
So then, aside from a petty back-and-forth of who said what at what time and when, the game now is to use your crystal ball powers to figure out how to make the team better. Not to brag about how right you were about something said back in January. Most of you that I’ve read so far were right about some things and dead wrong on others. Now’s not the time to be scoring at home. There is still a season going on with a pulse barely flickering, in part, because Balentien and Clement were not the offensive answers. Clement could be at some point down the road. But this team does not have another three weeks — or months — for Clement to figure things out. It’s nice to see that Troy Tulowitzki put a solid season together after struggling his first 15 games. He was on a sub-.500 team not expected to do anything at the time, so the risks were smaller. A record-setting three final weeks got the Colorado Rockies to the post-season, not the first five months under Tulowitzki. The Rockies today are back to their losing ways, so maybe those three weeks truly were a fluke.
Regardless, the M’s contention hopes won’t last another three weeks period — never mind until the final three weeks of a season — if things don’t change with this offense. A couple of more weeks like this and Clement will be able to come back and play his way through a month-long slump and hope that his numbers start to reach their natural, projected levels. But right now, there is still a season on the line. However fading some of you think it is.
This is not a teaching ground. This is major league baseball. Teaching time is for September call-ups, or teams that have given up on a season. Not for teams still hoping to fight their way back from obscurity and with struggling offenses looking for a boost. It’s great that Clement had mastered Class AAA pitching. But the only reason he was up here was to make the team better. He did not do it in the small, unfair time he was alloted. And during that time, his team nearly got itself knocked out of all semblance of contention.
So, hopefully that part is clear.
What can a healthier Jose Vidro offer? At worst, he’ll be as bad as Clement. At best, maybe something closer to the 109 OPS+ he produced last year. To answer one question from today about when the last time Jose Vidro had a “good” season at the plate, I’d argue that last year’s was OK. Maybe not for a DH. But an OPS+ of 109 would make Vidro the team’s third best hitter right now — yes, better than even the surging Jose Lopez. So, yes, I do think a healthy Vidro could contribute far more than Clement did when given the chance. I do not believe Vidro should be the full-time DH going forward. But for now, on a desperate team, I think he’s a possible short-term solution. If he surprises everyone and goes on a season-long roll, everyone is all the better for it and then you worry about his 2009 option later.
As of today though, I truly doubt the front office sees Vidro doing that for the next 4 1/2 months. Right now, they are worried about the next four days. About finding at least league average production in another power spot that’s been a black hole all year. The M’s, I am certain, are praying they can tread water with Vidro while they wait to see what Reed brings to the table. If Reed pulls a Clement and hits .167 with a sub-.600 OPS his first two or three weeks, then the last real hope Seattle had will be shot.
The Mariners need Reed to produce at least league average hitting numbers. Once he shows he can do that, then you start worrying about juggling all the pieces around full-time. That isn’t to say you can’t start experimenting now. If Reed does get his feet on the ground quickly, it opens up a variety of options. You can ease Raul Ibanez into a DH role a couple of times per week. You can alternate between Reed and Balentien in right field if Balentien continues to strike out the way he has.
Yes, the defense is a concern, but you have to walk before you can run.
The last thing you need is for Reed to be handed a left or right field spot and struggle. Then, you would have the possibility of a no-hit corner outfield and your best hitter, Ibanez, thrown off his game by a sudden shift to DH. It doesn’t matter what Ibanez did as a DH in 2005 on a bad team not expected to win anything. This is 2008 and this team was expected to win more than it loses and a lot more than that as well. Back then, three years ago, Ibanez had time to adapt to the role and prepare himself for it. For all I know, he’ll be excellent at it this time around. But that’s not a risk you take until you have to. This team doesn’t have time for anyone to be adpating to anything right now, let along two or three guys at once.
Some of you mentioned how Ibanez’s bat struggled when he went from being a DH to a full-time outfielder in 2005. Sometimes, it’s not the job itself but the diverted focus of mastering something different that takes away from hitting. And that’s a foolish risk when Ibanez is far and away this team’s top hitter at the moment.
Yes, the defense could be upgraded. But right now, the defense — bad as it’s been on some nights — is not what is losing the majority of these games. It’s an offense hard-pressed to score more than two or three runs per contest.
You fix that problem first by jettisoning the most replaceable guy, that being Clement. You bring up another hot hitter from Class AAA, that being Reed. You see how quickly he adapts to big-league hitting. And if he does, then you think about the next moves, fielding-wise, and worry about perfecting the defense and plugging up other, less-glaring, holes.
But first things first. Move too quickly and slash away at every ailment this Mariners patient has, you might lose him on the operating table before any of the surgery has a chance to work.
It’s not very reactionary, I’ll admit. But it might be the only way to go if it’s to have a hope in heck of working. I’m not convinced it will, but it’s worth a shot.

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