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February 6, 2009 at 9:53 AM

Competing for jobs

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Can’t remember ever going into a spring training like the one the Mariners will soon experience. The addition yesterday of left handed reliever Tyler Johnson only reinforced the idea that making this team will no longer be a cakewalk for the mainstays of the club.
I mean, how many teams out there have a $9 million starting pitcher like Miguel Batista with almost zero chance of making the rotation?
Or a No. 1 draft pick like Jeff Clement, who has to wonder whether or not he’s trade bait just a few years after being selected? What about Wladimir Balentien (Photo Credit: Julie Jacobson/AP), considered a top prospect just 12 months ago, who may have to fight for a backup job just to stay in the organization?
This is exactly what was missing from the Mariners squad of last year. True competition. I mean, yes, the M’s were coming off an 88-win season in 2007 and had just added Erik Bedard in what they thought was the missing piece to contending. I can understand them not wanting to change too much. But to have no competition at all in spring training? In hindsight, that now seems to have been a fatal mistake.
We talked a bit yesterday about John McLaren’s worries in the final two weeks of spring training about how his team wasn’t playing “clean baseball”. Haunting words, to be sure. How many times, once the season actually started, did we hear the exact same lament? Then again, why should the M’s have been playing clean ball? Not one of them, outside of the backup infielders and outfielders, had to be fearful of not landing a job. Let me correct that, since Willie Bloomquist had his job nailed down. The only folks who had to worry about anything were the backup outfielders.
And even with just that one, simple call to make, the M’s still messed it up. I mean, how on Earth does a team decide to keep both Charlton Jimerson and Mike Morse, at the expense of an innings-eating reliever like R.A. Dickey? Remember please, that the M’s entered the season with both Brandon Morrow and Arthur Rhodes in the minors making injury recoveries. This is not hindsight. We ripped the M’s at the time for keeping the Morse-Jimerson-Bloomquist speed clones on the same team. Two of them, maybe. But three?
Oh yeah, they did it so Cha Seung Baek would not have to be put through waivers and lost for nothing. That sure worked out well come mid-May, didn’t it? Maybe the M’s messed up Korean names and thought Baek was really Chan Ho Park, and that it was 1998 instead of 2008? Again, this is not second-guessing and hindsight. The team was called out on this decision the day the moves were made. Looking back, it seems a small wonder the M’s quickly imploded. Between the zero competition factor, where Miguel Cairo merely had to breathe to make the team as a glorified “coach” for Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt, to the insane decisions made by the squad’s brain trust at the end of camp, the M’s did everything they could to position themselves for a setback.
That latter part, linking the spring training reality to what happened next, does represent some hindsight on my part. After all, I still thought the M’s would contend once opening day came around. Let’s all consider ourselves a little better educated.
So, where is some of the better competition going to be?
CATCHER
A year ago, it was Kenji Johjima and Jamie Burke guaranteed jobs with the squad. No way Jeff Clement was going to make it, no matter what he did at spring training. This was confirmed early on by McLaren for anyone who listened. Of the two guarantees, only Burke earned his keep. This year, neither Burke nor Johjima is guaranteed to still be in their same spots by spring’s end. Clement will get a real chance to land the everyday job this spring. If he does, and Johjima plays semi-decently, then Burke could be out of a backup job. Or, all three could be kept on the team. That leaves Rob Johnson out of luck. Or, perhaps Clement gets traded and Johnson makes the team as a backup until Adam Moore is ready to boot everyone out of the catching position in a year or two. As I said, there is a little competition here. Actually, there’s a whole lot. This is going to be interesting. Especially if Johjima can’t bounce back and the team is ready to eat lots of money to make him go away.
FIRST BASE
This job is wide open for anyone who wants it. Russell Branyan and Chris Shelton would be long shots with any organization, not favorites to be the starting platoon on opening day. If Bryan LaHair figures out how to hit for power, he could land the job. Mike Sweeney was one of the top first basemen in the game not too long ago, and if he somehow rediscovers his stroke, he could be the starter. Mike Morse? Have a spring like last year’s and he could be the guy. None of these folks is considered an everyday player. Heck, even Jeff Clement could find himself at first base one of these days. I’m curious about seeing that Mike Carp kid acquired in the J.J. Putz deal. No matter what any of the other names does, Carp could find himself fighting for the opening-day first-base job come 2010. To the losers of this battle, the DH spoils could go. Look for whoever isn’t given the first-base job to get a crack at the DH assignment. Or, for those manning 1B and DH to be rotated around once the season begins. You won’t see any Cairo types manning the corner infield this year. (By the way, I liked Cairo a lot. Just thought he was miscast all too often. Not his fault).


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CLOSER
Gone are the days of merely pencilling in J.J. Putz for the back end of the bullpen. Right now, this job is wide open and the M’s have a number of guys who could close. The trade of Aaron Heilman removed only a fraction of the competition here. Mark Lowe will get a shot at the job, as will Tyler Walker, David Aardsma, Roy Corcoran and maybe even Miguel Batista. Don’t forget, Batista has more closing experience in the majors than any of those guys. And then, there’s Josh Fields. How foolish is he going to feel, knowing he could have come into camp as the odds-on favorite for the role, had he signed last June? If Fields does join the M’s in the next week, he’d be unlikely to make the team straight out of camp. But he could — with a good showing — establish himself as someone to take over in the bullpen come mid-season. If all else fails, there’s always Brandon Morrow. I get the feeling that, with this team unlikely to contend, the M’s are willing to give Morrow a look as a starter. But if he doesn’t show some quick progress and the bullpen starts blowing late leads, I could envision him winding back up in the bullpen. I don’t think the Zduriencik administration is as sold on Morrow as a starter as Bill Bavasi and Bob Fontaine were. For obvious reasons in that Zduriencik didn’t draft him ahead of Tim Lincecum. So, for that reason, I think Morrow is still a wild-card here. But what a competition this should be!
ROTATION
As I said, Miguel Batista looks to have zero chance of making this club as a starter, despite his $9 million salary. And then, there’s Ryan Rowland-Smith, possibly the best pitching story to come out of 2008 for the Mariners. As things currently stand, he won’t make a rotation that already encompasses lefties Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn. So, where does that leave Ryan Feierabend, who, don’t forget, pitched for the M’s as a 21-year-old back in 2006? Fighting for a bullpen job. That’s some serious competition for a squad coming off a 101-loss season. Yes, most of the rotation spots appear nailed down. Carlos Silva is here three more years and will begin the year in the rotation. Felix Hernandez is the No. 1 starter, with Berdard at No. 2, then Silva, then Washburn, then Morrow. But just when you think nobody else has any reason to feel competitive, consider this: both Washburn and Bedard will be free agents at season’s end. The team will also very likely try to trade one or both before the season is over. That means, several pitchers in camp will be vying for starting rotation jobs — just not for Opening Day. Perhaps, it will be for a job that only begins on Aug. 1. Lots of drama to see here.
MIDDLE INFIELD
If Yuniesky Betancourt (Photo Credit: Frank Gunn/AP) does not arrive in camp with a renewed focus, this could get very interesting indeed. I thought Jose Lopez earned his keep last year. But there’s nothing wrong with pushing him to improve defensively. I think moving him to first base is a bad idea. If the team does not think he can be an adequate second baseman, it should trade Lopez. He’d be a below average corner infielder. But keeping him on his toes, with the added presence of Ronny Cedeno? Why not? Betancourt, on the other hand, should be made to be fearful of forfeiting playing time. He has to get his head in the game, every single day, not just three or four times per week. Don’t forget, Tug Hulett has some major league experience under his belt and will be looking to make the team in some way. The M’s have also added Rule 5 pick Reegie Corona, who, besides having a cool name, will compete with Cedeno and Hulett for the full-time backup infield job. I also like the non-roster invitation given to Chris Woodward, a guy I know from Toronto days, who has been a starting major league shortstop, is still relatively young for a veteran, and has played on championship contenders with the Mets. Between those guys, Betancourt has good reason to be worried. And Lopez has good reason to keep improving.
OUTFIELD
In a radio interview last month, GM Jack Zduriencik sounded like he was going to hand the starting left fielder’s job to Endy Chavez. I asked Zduriencik about that a few days later and he assured me that no decisions had been made. Still, none of this bodes well for Wladimir Balentien. A year ago, Balentien was the flavor-of-the-month for the prospect-picking gang who insisted he was a legit trade commodity and valuable piece — maybe even as good as or better than Adam Jones with his bat. Right now, it’s conceivable that Balentien could be claimed off waivers by spring’s end. He’s out of options and has to make the squad. He won’t make it through waivers if sent to the minors, that’s a pretty sure bet. If he can’t beat out Chavez, then he has to make the team as a backup outfielder. I’d make him an early favorite for that job. But what if Mike Morse catches fire like last spring and Balentien struggles at the plate again? What if the team feels Morse is more valuable as a backup first baseman and outfielder? Then, Balentien would be in big trouble. He’ll also be in trouble if the team goes out and adds a true outfielder at some point before camp ends. Not Ken Griffey Jr., who would pretty much add more competition and complications to the DH scenario, but not the outfield. But if the M’s were to, say, pull off a trade like that ill-rumored Jarrod Washburn-Delmon Young deal, then Balentien looks like the odd man out. I still think he’s a much better defensive outfilelder than Morse. But Balentien can’t afford to be complacent. He’ll have to earn a spot on this team.

Comments | Topics: Chris Woodward

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