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May 13, 2009 at 10:17 AM

Mariners have limited options to bolster offense, but they are options

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Don’t forget Geoff Baker Live! coming up at noon.
Those of you who listened to KJR AM 950 and my Talkin’ Baseball segment with Mitch Levy this morning know that I came down pretty hard on the team in general. Players, coaches and the GM. When a team loses seven of eight in a division this poor, mainly because the offense keeps scoring one run per night, the time for patience starts to run out.
In fact, it’s quite obvious the time to do something about it has arrived.
That wasn’t the case a week ago. But now, the Mariners are below .500 and drifting the wrong way in the division. By month’s end, the Angels will start to get healthy again and then look out. With a bunch of games coming up against the Angels these next few weeks, it’s imperative for the M’s to get their act together. Not on the pitching and defense front. There have been some minor hiccups there that have largely been dealt with.
No, we’re talking about the offense. It’s simply not major league caliber at the moment and that can’t continue. For all the teeth gnashing about Carlos Silva, the hitting is a far bigger concern and has been for some time.
So, what to do about it?
The first thing is to make some moves with what you’ve got.
I’m told Ronny Cedeno is ready to play in a game and that’s probably why manager Don Wakamatsu seemed to single out Yuniesky Betancourt (without mentioning him by name) last night. Thing is, Betancourt last night was no different than he’d been all week. His defense is heading south and his hitting has become predictably bad. When you can sit in the pressbox and predict exactly when he’s going to take a pitch (usually the first one because I’m sure the team has drilled it into his head by now that he has to see at least one offering) and then swing at something (usually the second pitch) then the opposing pitcher’s job becomes far too easy.
Thing is, the Mariners were not able to do anything about it up until now. And that’s entirely their fault.

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The reason nothing could be done is the team had nobody to take Betancourt’s place, even for a night or two. Cedeno has been hurt for most of the past three weeks. But while that excuse is a valid one, it’s also inexcusable. If he’s going to be out that long, he has to be on the DL so a suitable replacement can be added from Class AAA.
Right now, that would be Chris Woodward. Not the greatest solution, granted, but better than nobody at all. The best solution would have been Chris Burke, who’s done a good job at the major league level with the Padres since being traded back in what amounted to a gesture of goodwill by GM Jack Zduriencik. Burke would have been the perfect replacement for Cedeno. Woodward, not so much. But he’s in AAA for that reason. For an emergency.
Instead, the Mariners have played Cedeno just once since April 22. That can’t happen. Cedeno is a DL case if there ever was one. Now, I understand that obviously, the team felt he’d be ready a lot earlier than he wound up being. But you can’t get it that wrong. You have to get a feel for these things as a management team. As experienced as Zduriencik and Wakamatsu are at the major league level, this is their first time making the calls in the executive suite and on the field. And in this case, the inexperience showed.
It also showed last month when Wladimir Balentien played once in nine days after huring his wrist and elbow in Oakland. Again, that’s too long for him not to be on the DL. With an offense this poor, you can’t afford to have a sidelined hitter taking up a roster spot for that amount of time just for the sake of saving a few days over what a DL stint would have cost. It might not seem like much, given the backup status of both players, but it hurts the team.
Cedeno is not viewed as an everyday shortstop solution, but Betancourt is also not performing to an adequate level on a daily basis. If you want to send him a message, running him out there every night doesn’t seem to be getting it across.
So, that’s one move the team can make, however short term.
I also think Balentien should be getting some more playing time as a left fielder. I understand that the team wants to keep Endy Chavez out there regularly, given his status as one of the club’s top defenders. But Chavez’s hitting has reverted to his career totals, somewhere in the mid-600s OPS-wise. With power at such a premium on this team, it’s getting to the point where you can’t really afford to sit a power bat like Balentien’s.
In fact, you can make the case that Balentien has performed almost as well as Chavez in left field. Not quite as well, but nearly. Hitting-wise, his left-right splits are not that dramatic, with an .838 OPS versus lefties and .798 against righties. Again, that split begs for more playing time.
If you want to keep Chavez fresh, you can spell Franklin Gutierrez in center a couple of days a week, helping him with that leg issue, then Balentien a couple of days in left. Then, you’d have Chavez playing four days a week and Balentien five. Roughly equal, with a slight edge to Balentien, who has been outhitting Chavez and is showing himself to be coming around on defense.
So, those are two moves the team can make with existing players to try to shake things up.
The Class AAA situation is not as clear cut.
Many of you would like to see Mike Carp called up. The problem is, he’s a lefty-hitting first baseman/DH.
This team’s best hitter, Russell Branyan, is a lefty-hitting first baseman. So, that’s out.
The lefty-hitting DH, Ken Griffey Jr., is starting to come around with the bat. Griffey already has one of the team’s top on-base-percentages, due to a ton of walks, but now is sprinkling in the hits as well.
So, the best replacement option at AAA really has no one to replace at the moment.
The other potential call-up candidate is catcher Jeff Clement, who, after a slow start, has his OPS back up to the high 700s with Tacoma. The attraction here is that Clement is lefthanded, like Carp, which could balance out a righty-dominant lineup. The righthanded nature of the Mariners order — with only Griffey, Ichiro and Branyan to offset it — might have something to do with why the Mariners keep getting manhandled by right handed pitchers. Of the three lefties, only Branyan has shown consistent power. Ichiro is what he is and Griffey, as we’ve mentioned, has to generate more power as a DH. But that still leaves the team a little short.
And Clement, as a lefty power hitter, could balance things out better.
The question is, can he hit at the major league level?
As far as catching goes, the team really likes what Rob Johnson has done behind the plate. But while hitting is never a catcher’s prime job, there’s a limit to how little bat you can accept at any one lineup spot.
Johnson has a .523 OPS, including .192 for May and both are far below acceptable major league norms — even for catchers. He has to step it up, and quickly, and that’s going to be tough to do because Kenji Johjima is getting the bulk of playing time lately.
There’s no point keeping Johnson around as a backup if he’s going to play once every five days.
At this point, with the offense going down the tubes, it could make sense for the team to contemplate calling up Clement to balance out the lineup. I’m not sure Johjima is the full-time catching answer at this point. And I’m also not sure the team feels Clement is ready to be a full-time catcher in the big leagues. But at this point, it may be worth taking a chance and finding out.
As I said, options are limited.
A big help for this offense will be if Adrian Beltre starts hitting in the middle of the order. Nothing more complicated than that. He started to in Minnesota before going hitless last night.
Jose Lopez needs to start hitting more as well.
The Mariners have no replacements for those two.
And they need to hit because Branyan, who has carried the team all season with his bat, looks like he’s slowing down. He’s had only three hits his past 23 at-bats and may be in need of a rest. It’s a normal struggle. All hitters go through them. But when Branyan slumps, it’s going to be felt because nobody else is producing.
Some of you are already screaming for Matt Tuiasosopo to come up and play. But again, that’s a limited option. Beltre plays too well defensively to move him out of the lineup and frankly, this team is sunk if he doesn’t start to hit.
Lopez isn’t nearly as good defensively, but again, replacing him is almost as good as surrendering the season because he’s too big an offensive cog.
The hitters on this team have to do what’s expected — period.
And the team has to start taking advantage of the limited options that are available as of this moment. It’s not early anymore. The M’s have lost seven of eight, are below .500 and there is a clear reason why.
Do some things to fix it and it might not be too late to salvage a season that seemed oh so promising only nine days ago.

Comments | Topics: Chris Woodward


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