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August 4, 2010 at 9:47 AM

Young guys playing for their futures these next two months

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Adam Moore got called up yesterday by the Mariners and the plan, for now, is to play him almost every day the final two months.
Welcome to 2011. The 2010 version of it, that is.
Moore isn’t the only young Mariners hopeful auditioning for a full-time role next season. A couple of guys are deeper into their auditions than Moore is and these final two months could go a long way in determining whether they open 2011 on the MLB squad.
Those would be left fielder Michael Saunders (photo above) and third baseman Matt Tuiasosopo.
Both have already has previous looks at the major league level. Tuiasosopo first came up in September of 2008, before making the Opening Day roster in both 2009 and 2010. Many folks don’t like to hear me repeat it, but it bears repeating: young players do not have forever to make an impression on a major league squad.
That’s doubly true when the players in question were not the first choice of a general manager. Saunders, Tuiasosopo and Moore are all products of the Bill Bavasi regime and were inherited by GM Jack Zduriencik.
That doesn’t automatically make them persona non grata. It only means that any GM, not just Zduriencik, will be evaluating them closely to see whether they fit the mold of the team he is trying to construct. With Justin Smoak, who Zduriencik just traded for, he had time to study the player’s skillset and decided this was exactly the type of guy who could help what he was building.
And so, it stands to reason that Smoak will get more time — not unlimited time mind you, but plenty more — to develop the skills Zduriencik sees ready to blossom just beneath the surface. Not so with the Bavasi holdovers, who now have to show Zduriencik they have what it takes to fit his style of team.
With Saunders, Tuiasosopo and, to a lesser extent, Moore, the next two months will go a long way. And there’s a good chance that at least part of the trio won’t be around next spring.

Saunders has had .202 plate appearances thus far for the Mariners in 2010 and is hitting .238 with a .310 on-base percentage. Neither of those numbers jumps off the chart at anybody.
Where Saunders has given signs of encouragement is in the raw power he’s shown and his improved consistency since July.
His isolated power is at .193 for the season (Russell Branyan is at .206) and he’s hit as many of his eight home runs at Safeco Field as he has on the road. That’s of use. And as the pure power we saw in the Steroids Era continues to diminish across the game, a guy with the type of power occasionally flashed by Saunders could become even more valued.
It’s worth noting that Saunders has only one homer since June. But he did hit with greater consistency in July and pure home run power is often the last thing to fully develop for a major league hitter. I can remember covering Alex Rios when he first broke into the big leagues in 2004. He wound up hitting just seven home runs in 2004 and 2005 combined, which was the fewest by any regular right fielder in the big leagues. A couple of years later, Rios blossomed into an elite outfielder and power guy. Now, look at what he’s doing to opposing pitchers with the White Sox.
There are three things Saunders has to do the rest of the way.
1. Keep up the consistency he showed in July, when he hit .279, compared to .215 in June and .220 in May.
2. Continue to develop against left-handed pitchers. Saunders as an everyday player becomes far more attractive to the organization than as a platoon guy. So far, he’s hitting just .208 versus lefties compared to .248 against righties. But in July, he went 7-for-21 (.333) against southpaws, then followed with a triple on Aug. 1 against Francisco Liriano. So, again, that’s significant progress. But it can’t stop after one month. Saunders has to maintain improved numbers — it doesn’t have to be .333, but .200 won’t help him — against lefties the rest of the way.
3. His defense is improved and on the plus-side of the ledger overall in the advanced metrics. It’s on the minus side on the road, but that should improve as he learns opposing ballparks as well as his own. The decision-making process on where to throw the ball has lapsed on occasion. The key will be for Saunders to get the routine stuff down — like which base to throw the ball to and how hurriedly on extra-base hits — while he grows into the tougher stuff. So far, though, nothing too alarming with the glove.
That’s what to look for with Saunders. Believe me, this team would like nothing more than to be able to pencil in Saunders as the everyday left fielder with an isolated power score up near .200. They are not rooting for him to fail, but hoping he succeeds. It would save the team a ton of worry this off-season. The fact that Saunders has upped his game while those around him in the order continue to struggle is a telling positive in his favor. But there are still two months to go. Remember, many people were ready to annoint Ryan Rowland-Smith as the team’s No. 3 starter last winter, based off six weeks worth of starts in each of two prior seasons.
For Tuiasosopo, the issue is more plate related. He’s made strides defensively at certain positions, but will always be a guy who needs his bat to stay in the majors. He didn’t get consistent playing time his first go-around this year but has been in there daily for a few games now as Jose Lopez sits out with a hamstring injury. I’m guessing that hamstring is not as sore as the team is making it out to be. Lopez said on Sunday morning that he feels ready to play. I’m guessing the team wants to give Tuiasosopo a longer look.
Tui has had only 68 plate appearances this season and is hitting .172 after his second double of the season last night. Overall, he’s hit .177 in 140 big league plate appearances. No, that is not the best sample size with which to judge a guy. But the thing is, Tui is looking more and more like a utility player at the big league level if he sticks with the Mariners. His defense overall is not something that Zduriencik usually puts out there on a daily basis if he can help it. So, irregular at-bats are something Tui will have to start to find success with if he is to stick with the M’s. The M’s have always liked his athleticism and ability to play multiple positions. But he has to hit, plain and simple. He’s 2-for-10 this latest playing stint, with two hits last night.
Moore also has to start to hit, though perhaps not with the same urgency as Saunders and Tuiasosopo.The thing with Moore is, he played only a couple of games last fall, then just a month his first go-around with the Mariners this year. You can’t judge a player — especially a catcher — on a month’s worth of ABs. The Mariners would love for Moore to start to hit these next few months, but, more importantly, to show the same confidence behind the plate that helped him win a job out of spring training. The two tend to go hand-in-hand. When you’re hitting the ball well, the confidence part carries over to other parts of your game.
So, this isn’t do-or-die for Moore these next two months. But any strides he makes can determine who the Mariners shop for this winter. Will they go out and acquire a veteran catcher yet again to serve as a mentor to split time with Moore? Or, will they be confident enough in heading to camp with him as the No. 1 guy? We’ll see.
Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said yesterday that Rob Johnson was given extensive playing time in his major league audition. By my count, that amounted to roughly a season and a half. So, it stands to reason that Moore’s audition should extend well into next season. But he can’t simply bank on that assumption. He’ll be evaluated daily while up here, starting with last night’s hitless, three-strikeout performance.
Again, he has to convince the Zduriencik regime — which did not draft him with a belief in what he can do — that he is their guy. This is just the start for him. But the end won’t be years down the road if he fails to hit.
Don’t believe me? Here are some of the prospects/minor leaguers the Mariners have shipped out since Zduriencik took over and how much time they were given at the big-league level.
Jeff Clement (former No. 3 overall pick) — 243 PA (88 fewer than Saunders)
Wladimir Balentien — 434 PA
Bryan LaHair — 150 PA
Mike Morse — 337 PA
Back in 2008, veteran Miguel Cairo took Balentien aside several times for chats when he was struggling. Was Cairo coddling the young player? Telling him not to worry, that everyone struggles in the big leagues? No, he wasn’t. Cairo told Balentien, in no uncertain terms, that yeah, the bigs are tough. But young players only get a limited number of windows to jump through. And that when your window opens, you have to make the most of it.
Sure, the circumstances can vary for each player, and some guys, like Morse, had to either be kept or let go. But none of those players were given the requisite 1,500 to 2,000 plate appearances many hitting coaches will tell you are needed to fully gauge whether a player will reach his potential or not.
So, yes, these auditions currently taking place for the Mariners are quite real. No player is going to keep getting multiple seasons to produce if they put up below average numbers and show limited progress. There is a fine line in baseball between allowing a young player to develop and waiting too long for something to happen that just isn’t there. The goal of every team is to win and the more players you have putting up below average numbers, the less likely you are to win.
That’s doubly true when a GM is looking at guys he did not pick. And believe me, it isn’t always fair. Morse seems to have found a career in Washington when he couldn’t make one here in Seattle. That’s just the way it goes.
So, there is some intensity to what you’re going to see out there in August and September. Guys truly are playing for jobs. When your team is on-pace to lose more than 100 games, no one outside of Felix Hernandez is ever really going to be safe.



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