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

April 20, 2009 at 8:53 AM

Mariners shining defensively — with exceptions

Don’t forget Geoff Baker Live! today at 11:30 a.m.
We’re still only two weeks into a very long baseball season, but the Mariners being 8-5 has obviously given fans in Seattle new reason for hope. Yes, the team has lost two in a row and three of four, but an 8-5 record and first-place standing in the AL West would still have been taken by any M’s fan 14 days ago in Minneapolis.
When I went on ESPN 2 the other day to talk about the M’s and was asked whether they could keep this up, I told them I thought the team could. The reason was that the M’s, who were 7-3 at the time, were not winning because of a torrid streak of offense. We’ve all seen it: some team clubs 20 homers in a week and goes on a seven-game win streak, only to see the hot period of offense cool down.
Not these Mariners. Their hitting so far, or lack of it, is exactly what we’ve been saying it would be for months now. It is devoid of power and scoring runs has been a problem. Yes, Raul Ibanez would look great in a Mariners uniform right now, playing somewhere other than the outfield. But he isn’t and we’ll have to go with what’s out there.
And what’s out there is winning because of what it does well — pitching and defense.
The starting pitching has been well above average, just as it was supposed to be a year ago. And the improved defense has much to do with it.
How improved?
Well, let’s look at the advanced defensive metrics out there.
We told you a month ago about Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), available on the FanGraphs website, and interviewed creator Mitchel Lichtman for a story we ran. Well, as of today, UZR has the Mariners as the No. 1 defensive team in the majors.
No, that’s not a misprint.
Your Seattle Mariners, they of the previous bungled balls and holed gloves, are baseball’s top-ranked defensive team — ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, who visit tomorrow.
Let’s look at the Mariners individually and how they contributed to that top-ranked score of +8.4. That’s 8.4 runs they’ve saved themselves as a team defensivley, according to UZR. The Rays are next at +6.2, then the Brewers at +5.6.
On an individual player basis, the M’s see:
Franklin Gutierrez (photo above) +3.7
Endy Chavez (LF +2.9, RF +1.1, CF -0.4), +3.6
Adrian Beltre +2.3
Jose Lopez +1.0
Ronny Cedeno (LF +0.8, 2B +0.3, SS -0.1, 3B -0.3) +0.7
Ken Griffey Jr. +0.5
Russell Branyan +0.2
Wladimir Balentien (RF +0.5, LF -0.5) 0.0
Those are guys on the positive side, or neutral side, of the run saving ledger.
On the negative side:
Yuniesky Betancourt -2.8
Ichiro -1.0
Those are the stats of guys who have spent enough time playing a position to qualify. UZR does not measure pitchers and catchers. Ichiro has only been back a few games and will get penalized for that throwing error the other night. But I’d expect his numbers to correct themselves rather quickly.
There has already been an outcry by some that Ronny Cedeno should move in and bump Betancourt to the bench. This is natural, given the two errors by Betancourt yesterday and the seemingly impressive defensive play by Cedeno.
I’d say manager Don Wakamatsu faces a tough decision here.
There are two ways Wakamatsu can go. If he wants to send Betancourt a message, there is no better time for him to do it. Betancourt just had a two-error game that the manager indicated yesterday demonstrated a need for better on-field focus. The focus part of Betancourt’s game is something the team has demanded he improve upon since last year.
Cedeno has demonstrated an ability to play the field adequately, including at shortstop.
Here’s the challenge with doing a Betancourt-Cedeno swap at the moment.
For all of his free-swinging so far, Betancourt is still hitting .302 on a team full of .200 hitters at the moment. Cedeno is hitting just .174.
And though Cedeno has the better defensive numbers, it’s a very small sample size. This team’s braintrust, in its heart of hearts, does not believe that Cedeno is capable of being a full-time shortstop on a playoff caliber team. They might feel the same way about Betancourt in a few more weeks, but the fact remains that the coaching staff does not see Cedeno over Betancourt as a long-term solution.
And so, going in, you know that sending Cedeno out there as a replacement of Betancourt would only be a message-sender. Only a one or two-game option in any given week.
What Wakamatsu has to ask himself is whether right now is the time to do that.
Betancourt has shown an effort at some of the things the team has asked of him, like at least trying to get down bunts and move runners over. Betancourt has become an effective double-play partner with Jose Lopez. A Cedeno-Lopez combo would lack the same familiarity.
Bench Betancourt now, when he has been trying to up his game as asked, and Wakamatsu risks losing him beyond that one game or two. Losing him at a time when the team does not have a full-time shortstop ready to replace Betancourt, especially one who can hit .300.
When you’re the No. 2 hitter, plate patience matters a lot more than at the No. 9 or No. 7 spot where Betancourt currently is.
So, Wakamatsu is faced with his first serious managerial test right here.
Does he send Betancourt a message right now? Or, realizing the two-error game occured on one day of a two-week season so far, does he overlook that transgression and hope Betancourt gets the focus message without having to be benched?
Tough call. Especially when Betancourt is one of the few .300 hitters in this lineup.
Easy for me to say what I’d do. I don’t manage the team. But you don’t come here to see me waffle on things. So, here goes. With the off-day today and then a series opener tomorrow, I’d give Betancourt the extra day tomorrow to reflect on what just happened. There’s been a lot of talk by the team this year about guys having to pick up their play. We’ve written about the good things Betancourt has done this year — like that game-winning bunt on opening day and his .300 average.
But he’s also paid, rather well, to play the field.
And so far, according to UZR, he’s behind his teammates in that regard. We kept hearing all spring that Cedeno was here to push Betancourt to do better. Nothing wrong with Betancourt now getting a two-day “rest” to gather himself and Cedeno starting at shortstop for the one game.
But get this point and get it clear: Cedeno is not viewed by the team as the full-time shortstop solution. If he was, this would be an easy call. The prevailing team view is that the more Cedeno plays, the more his numbers will decline. And that’s why this message has to be sent with that in mind.
And then, the team has to hope Betancourt gets that message, with no further reminders needed. It’s early enough in the season that such a goal can be accomplished with time for the shortstop to turn his game around. All aspects of it.



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