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September 15, 2008 at 10:42 AM

The Lopez question

So much for all that “competitive play” by the Mariners, unless some of you measure competitiveness with something other than wins and losses. Yes, the M’s hung tough in most of their games with the Angels (all four if you count the fact that K-Rod needed to notch the “save” on Thursday night). But come on. The Angels are a team that clinched the division last week. They are supposedly in cruise control mode right now. Much needs to be done in Seattle. Don’t be fooled by some tight games when it doesn’t matter.
In that spirit, the M’s have, thankfully, begun to do a little bit of experimenting down the stretch. Jose Lopez at first base was, to me, an intriguing change of pace. But is it really an option for 2009? I don’t believe that one for a second. Nor should you. While Lopez has enjoyed a steady season offensively, he is still nothing remotely close to what a good team will have playing first base. If this team was doing something other than taking a look at Luis Valbeuna at second (in other words, seriously looking at a future first baseman), then Raul Ibanez or Jeff Clement would be handling the corner.
There are some who say Lopez should be moved to third base. Again, I really don’t see that in the future either. Let’s take a look at Lopez’s numbers.

Offensively, the numbers put up by Lopez rank him fifth among active AL second basemen. It’s been a good year for second basemen with the stick, with folks like Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia dominating MVP talk for a good part of the season.
In terms of OPS, you have:
Kinsler .892
Pedroia .877
Brian Roberts .834
Placido Polanco .767
Lopez .750
Lopez’s .430 slugging percentage is actually fourth highest. Where he gets hurt, as do most Mariners, is with on-base percentage, even if .320 is his career-high to date. It needs to be higher.
And don’t get too wrapped up in his RBI total. Yes, his 81 RBI represents the most of any AL second baseman. But that’s merely a function of where Lopez has been hitting — in the middle of the order for much of the year. In fact, 257 of his at-bats, with 37 RBI coming in those cases. Good teams won’t put a .750 OPS hitter in the middle of the order much of the year. It hurts the offense. Middle of the order spots, on good teams, are reserved for the .800 OPS and above types. Unfortunately, bad teams like the M’s have little choice in the matter outside of Ibanez. That’s why Lopez, Adrian Beltre, Jose Vidro, Richie Sexson and other sub-.800 OPS hitters have been in the middle of the order all year. No one else stepped up and Ibanez can’t hit 3rd, 4th and 5th in the same game at the same time.
Pedroia has had a grand total of 22 at-bats in the middle of the order.
Before he got hurt, in mid-August, all of Kinsler’s ABs had been from the leadoff spot in the order, other than four ABs at the No. 9 position.
Let’s see where Lopez’s numbers would rate among first basemen:
Kevin Youkilis .938
Justin Morneau .911
Jason Giambi .885
Miguel Cabrera .882
Carlos Pena .857
Lyle Overbay .804
Paul Konerko .770
Kevin Millar .728
Yes, he would be only eighth best. And while that seems middle-of-the-road, it’s actually far worse when you consider the disparity between Lopez and the best first basemen on good teams. Anywhere from 100 to almost 200 points difference. That’s a lot worse than the disparity as a second baseman. The idea is for the Mariners to eventually become a good team. Lopez fares well with Kevin Millar, but, as expected, the Orioles are in last place.
Yes, the M’s could improve by putting a defensive wizard in at second base, like, say Orlando Hudson of the D-Backs. But having seen Hudson play for years in the AL, I can tell you his bat is nothing special. Put Chase Utley in at second and then we can start talking about Lopez going to first base. But otherwise, the M’s would be losing a heck of a lot on offense at an important power spot by Lopez moving to first, for the sake of upgrading defensively at second base (while losing any offensive value Lopez brought up the middle). Unless you’re going to bring in a new guy at second who does something above average at the plate and in the field, you’re better off leaving Lopez at second. And Lopez, defensively, is not the drain that Yuniesky Betancourt has been at shortstop. I’d put Lopez about middle-of-the pack in the AL at second, based on all the defensive metrics I’ve seen.
Lopez is not the team’s biggest problem. He and Bertancourt as a combined tag-team are a liability up the middle. But put Ozzie Smith at shortstop and few would be complaining about having to keep Lopez at second base.
Let’s see how Lopez would fare as a third baseman:
Alex Rodriguez .939
Melvin Mora .835
Carlos Guillen .811
Adrian Beltre .784
Alex Gordon .771
Chone Figgins .692
Now, from an offensive standpoint, Lopez would appear much better suited with this group. A-Rod is unworldly, so let’s leave him out of this for now. But with the rest of the human race, Lopez actually falls within 85 points of OPS of every other third baseman. So, his bat would not be as big a liability compared to what the M’s have had with Beltre much of this season. In fact, Beltre’s offensive totals for the year have mostly been inflated by an above-average past month, so Lopez would be providing much of what Beltre did for the majority of 2008. It’s on defense that the big problem would lie. Beltre has provided Gold Glove defense at third. Lopez’s biggest problems at second have been with his range. All those balls he dives for that seem to go underneath him. That could be mitigated somewhat at third base. But it’s tough to envision him barehanding slow rollers up the line and throwing guys out at first the way Beltre does on a routine basis. I could forsee a rebirth of the bunt by opposing teams with Lopez manning the hot corner. Not sure about Lopez’s arm at third either. Not better than what Beltre has shown.
In short, the M’s would be giving something up by moving Lopez to third, both slightly on offense and some on defense.
Remember, the plan is for the team to get better. Not to be average or below average.
What does Lopez do well?
He’s flexible in multiple spots in the order. He can drive in runs when given the chance. That’s not all luck. Some of it is. A lot of it is. But not all. Lopez has stayed consistent through much of a full season while handling different assignments. Not every second baseman can do that. As a middle infielder, he brings value in that regard.
And frankly, I see it as the biggest value he brings this team. And feel that this is the team’s best hope of getting maximum value out of Lopez. By leaving him right where he is.
That is, if the team keeps him.
Other than that, the best chance the M’s might have of getting top value out of Lopez is by trading him away for something useful and installing a better defender at second. And then putting better hitters at the infield corners once a decision on Beltre is made as well. But moving Lopez around to the infield corners, based on what I’ve seen, looks more to be a case of creating a new problem with the goal of fixing an old one.
Unless Chase Utley is coming to town. Or Lopez is about to go on a Sammy Sosa-like hitting transformation. I just don’t see it. For me, if the team sticks with Lopez long-term, he’s best off — as is the team — staying right where he is.
Despite the solid string of losses, Seattle picked up zero ground on the weekend in The Strasburg Race:
Washington 56-93 .376 —
San Diego 57-93 .380 0.5
SEATTLE 57-91 .385 1.5
In our MLB2K race, the Mariners edged the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 in the second game of a three-game series at the Rogers Centre. The M’s remained a game up on the Texas Rangers in the AL West.
The game began like it might be a blowout as Hanley Ramirez tagged Blue Jays starter Jarrod Washburn for a solo homer in the first, followed by a two-run blast from Connor Jackson that made it 3-0 after a half-inning of play. Mariners starter Carlos Silva allowed just a run his first three innings, then saw J.D. Drew hit his 74th homer of the season to lead off the sixth, surpassing Barry Bonds for the all-time single season record and giving the M’s a 4-1 lead. Washburn left the game one out later.
Toronto then tied it in the bottom of the sixth when Kenji Johjima drilled a three-run homer off Silva. Johjima’s blast got Washburn off the hook for the loss. The game stayed tied at 4-4 until the eighth. That’s when Drew came up and hit home run No. 75, this one on an 0-2 pitch from reliever Ryan Madson, to put Seattle back ahead. Silva worked into the eighth inning, then left with one on and one out. But closer Jose Valverde came in and notched five consecutive outs for the save.
ADDITIONAL NOTES (12:26 p.m.): For Zack in the comments thread, Beltre had a .733 OPS on Aug. 24 — three weeks ago — before raising it by 50 points to its current level. Ibanez has not been below .800 since posting .798 on July 26. His worst number since the first week of the season was a .753 OPS on May 31. Since posting a .759 on June 16 (three months ago), Ibanez’s OPS has not dipped lower than that. So, one player has been “hot” for three months, the other (and not as hot) for three weeks. And thus, any offensive similarities between the pair exist, unfortunately, in the realm of fantasy. In reality, it hasn’t been that close. Sorry.
For Toad, I’ll grant that Hudson has improved his bat in the NL, playing in a hitter-friendly park. That’s what worries me the most. Hudson took a quantum leap forward immediately by switching leagues, to the worst division in baseball. The NL is an inferior league all around. I don’t see Hudson’s numbers staying like that if he moves back to the AL, playing home games at Safeco Field against some pretty good pitching within the division. Maybe he’s a league average hitter like Lopez. In which case, it’s still an upgrade at second because of the defense. But then you lose that edge by the dropoff in offensive power experienced by putting Lopez at a corner infield spot in lieu of the usual slugging types.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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