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April 14, 2011 at 8:55 AM

Mariners facing some tough roster decisions early on

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We’re not even two weeks into the season and the Mariners are already faced with a couple of tough roster decisions that could go a long way towards defining their mission statement for 2011.
David Aardsma throws a simulated game here in Kansas City tomorrow, then could head out on a minor league rehabilitation assignment. Franklin Gutierrez is about to embark on his own minor league rehab.
And when both guys are ready to return, the M’s will have to find room for them.
Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well, a couple of weeks ago, it might have been.
Back then, you simply would have shipped Michael Saunders and his not-quite-ready-for-prime-time batting stance back to Class AAA. Ditto for Tom Wilhelmsen and his never-pitched-above-mid-level-Class A-ball-arm, which could always benefit from some actual professional seasoning below the highest level.
These days? Not so easy.

The real tough one here is Saunders, who had hits in four of his last five games before going 0-for-3 yesterday. He’s still hitting just .227 overall, but his bat seems to be responding to added playing time.
If Saunders can keep it up — meaning he doesn’t tumble below .200 and actually continues to hit consistently — then it would be tough to argue his development is better served playing every day in AAA. Again, this comes with a huge caveat. Saunders has to keep succeeding at the big league level with his revamped stance. Anyone can have a good five days. Saunders had a great month of July last year. But if he continues to improve as he gains comfort with his new stance, then it would seem like a backwards step to demote him and have him continue against lesser AAA pitching.
And keeping Saunders in the majors means finding him regular playing time. For a while, at least, Gutierrez won’t be ready to play six days a week in center field, so you can bounce some of the outfielders around a bit.
But once Gutierrez is ready to go, Saunders is primarily a left fielder who would have to split time with Milton Bradley. At present, Bradley is looking like his old self — and in a good way at that. He’s hitting .273 with a .779 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, making him one of the biggest producers in a poor lineup.
You could get Bradley in there more by splitting time in left with Saunders and at DH with the struggling Jack Cust. But there’s no way for all three guys to get regular playing time the way they are right now.
Remember, Cust was one of the bigger off-season acquisitions this team made. He’s struggling right now, but the season is less than two weeks old. Teams usually don’t punt on a guy that early. I highly doubt the M’s will in his case.
So, therein lies the tough decision.
And it really all ties in to what this team’s mission is all about this year. The Mariners have asked fans to endure bumps and bruises. The players have busted their humps in order to acquire a paltry .333 winning percentage. Every one of those wins in a 4-8 start has been earned by a team that isn’t very good. All in the name of “rebuilding” and “development”.
So, fixing a short-term logjam by sending Saunders to the minors — undoubtedly the plan when spring training ended — won’t be so easy if he’s producing. How do you sell that to fans as part of a last-place team’s long-term plan?
Let’s also not forget that keeping Saunders, Bradley and Cust could very well mean having to go with a six-man bulllpen instead of seven. Unless, of course, the team is ready to jettison a backup infielder like Luis Rodriguez. Not likely to happen.
So, can this team go with only a six-man pen? Especially after what we saw yesterday? I know the bullpen just went 17 scoreless innings to help Seattle pick up a couple of wins. But some of the innings sandwiched around those 17 have been painful.
Again, that decision — a six-or-seven-man pen — ties into the team’s mission statement. Is it more important to win games now, or to develop players for the future? Does it really matter if the M’s lose 88, or 105? Well, for some fans, it matters a great deal.
These are not easy choices. Not when a team is drawing just 12,000 and change to a ballpark that’s still one of the nicest in the game today.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Which bullpen member leaves when Aardsma comes back? Let’s say Aardsma is ready before Gutierrez and we’re not even discussing six-man or seven-man pens. Just a one-for-one swap. Who goes?
Do you jettison yesterday’s unanimous choice for Mr. Unpopularity, Chris Ray, or send Wilhelmsen or maybe Josh Lueke to the minors? It’s much easier to ship out Lueke or Wilhelmsen, given that both have minor league options left. Ray does not and would have to be outrighted. He could be claimed off waivers by a team willing to overlook some of his early struggles.
It’s not like Wilhelmsen or Lueke have been shut-down relievers. They’ve both got higher strikeout totals than Ray, but have also been prone to putting guys on base and giving up big hits. Not exactly the perfect recipe for the seventh-inning guys they would be once Aardsma comes back.
And again, if you go with a six-man bullpen once Gutierrez is ready — in order to keep all of Saunders, Bradley and Cust — then one of Lueke and Wilhelmsen would likely have to go in any event. Do you ship out both young guys and keep Ray in such a scenario?
Could happen. But then again, where does that leave the “rebuilding” thing? Is it more important to try to win now, by keeping the veteran pitcher you hope can rebound? Or to keep the young pitcher and take the lumps associated with development?
No easy answers here, but the M’s will have to come up with a couple of them soon. Aardsma and Gutierrez won’t be out forever.
These things often tend to resolve themselves, either through an injury or a player merely playing himself out of a job. This is one time, I’m certain, where the Mariners won’t make the final call until the very moment they have to.
And no matter what they decide, it won’t be a popular choice in some quarters.



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