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April 15, 2011 at 9:26 AM

The ongoing search for a true Mariners clean-up hitter

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Back in 2007, after John McLaren had taken over the M’s from Mike Hargrove mid-season, we were discussing some of the challenges associated with managing the team. McLaren didn’t want me writing anything at the time, for reasons which will become obvious in a moment, but he didn’t think that his team had a true No. 4 hitter.
At the time, the M’s were using a rotation of Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson and Raul Ibanez in that slot.
McLaren told me that, as good as those three hitters could be, he felt they were miscast when used to bat clean-up. But, he added, he had little choice given the players available to him.
He saw Beltre as a No. 2, or No. 5 hitter and both Sexson and Ibanez more as No. 5 guys, vulnerable to severe lefty-righty splits and needing a real monster bat in front of them.
I found it all very interesting. One year later, the Mariners were still doing a three-man rotation. In fact, Beltre was used in spots No. 2 through 5 in the order that year, though he bat clean-up the most. That clean-up spot was also where he hit his worst.
McLaren, in case we’ve all forgotten, was fired in June — of his first full year managing the club.
So, here we are in 2011 and fewer than two weeks in, we’re treated to the sight of infielder Adam Kennedy being handed the No. 4 role for a night. It was only one game and largely because the guy tabbed as the clean-up hitter, Jack Cust, is batting only .175 with a slugging percentage well below his weight. In fact, the slugging percentage barely surpasses Kennedy’s listed 195 pounds.
Yes, Cust has had a rough start.
And the M’s have had a rough five or six years at finding the anchor to their lineup. Not surprisingly, they’ve been one of baseball’s worst offensive teams during that time.
Yesterday, in a moment of clarity amidst the early-season offensive chaos, new manager Eric Wedge offered this observation: “You know what? I don’t think we have a true four-hole hitter right now.”
And so, the search continues. From McLaren, to Wedge, and all the managers in-between, you can talk in-game strategy all you want, bicker over who should have called for a hit-and-run, or a stolen base, or used the bullpen this way and that. But one thing all of these managers have in common is what Wedge just pointed out — the lack of a true clean-up anchor in a league where piling on runs is a good idea if you plan on winning games.
In reality, this team hasn’t had a real No. 4 hitter do consistently well since Sexson back in 2005.


But Sexson became a different hitter after that season. By 2006, despite impressive home run totals at the end, he was struggling big-time. The contact he was making just wasn’t the same as it had been in 2005.
And by 2007, it was clear to McLaren and others that Sexson wasn’t the glue you wanted holding the offense together. That he was still dependable as an RBI man in the No. 5 slot, where his flyballs could bring home runners and his home runs would still cash in anyone on base.
But the bat speed was slowing and the consistency waning. By spring training of 2008, the M’s knew they had a serious problem on their hands when they realized that the skills of Sexson, Jose Vidro and Brad Wilkerson had diminished so greatly that all three looked like they were done.
In fact, they were all done by year’s end.
Still, Vidro appeared as the team’s clean-up hitter in an astounding 51 at-bats that year, posting a miserable .587 on-base-plus-slugging percentage at that spot. The reasoning given, not by McLaren, but by his successor, Jim Riggleman, was that there were few other options available.
Riggleman, like Wedge in using Kennedy, wanted a veteran in that spot who could handle the pressure of anchoring the lineup. Wanted a guy who could handle lefty-righty splits. And didn’t want to put undue pressure on others he felt were better-suited elsewhere.
Well, it was a theory, anyway. We all know how well it worked out.
It’s interesting how, when you look at the M’s once they leave Seattle, those used in the clean-up role here almost always get bounced elsewhere. Ibanez was immediately dropped to No. 6 in the order by the Phillies, a World Series champ that would repeat as NL winners that year.
Beltre went to the Red Sox, where he was dropped primarily to No. 5 in the order. He was also used higher up, but hardly ever in the No. 4 position. This year, he’s batting clean-up for the Rangers and struggling at the plate.
Ibanez, Beltre and Sexson are no longer the M’s concern.
Right now, they have to find what those three were unable to provide all of the managers who preceded Wedge. And find what nobody the past two years — from Jose Lopez, to Ken Griffey Jr., to Mike Sweeney to Beltre to whomever — was able to provide Don Wakamatsu and Darren Brown as their teams piled up some of the worst offensive totals in baseball.
Some will suggest that Cust can be a clean-up hitter. This, despite the fact he’s never been a pure home run hitter, relying more on a great eye at the plate and heavy doubles numbers to boost his OPS. In fact, I don’t think Wedge, in discussing his lack of a true No. 4 hitter, was ruling out Cust eventually finding his way in that role.
And the truth is, Cust has achieved success in the No. 4 slot before. But it’s also true that he’s never had more than 200 ABs at that spot in any one year. This season, he’s the guy being counted on in that role full-time. There is a difference.
Like I said, it’s early.
The team won’t punt on Cust two weeks in. But he knows, as well as anyone, that he has to get it going soon. Teams usually start making detailed evaluations and moving pieces around at about the one-month mark. So, he’s got about two more weeks to start to show what he’s capable of in the No. 4 spot.
Still, the team’s options, as Wedge said, are limited.
There is always Milton Bradley, who fits the veteran criteria. But then, there’s the issue of handling the pressure associated with clean-up. Bradley has enjoyed his greatest success as a No. 3 guy and for now, Wedge doesn’t want to risk messing with something that actually has worked for him.
Same with Justin Smoak. In truth, Smoak — a switch-hitter like Bradley — could be this team’s best clean-up option going forward. He’s handled the position before at other levels of baseball. And he’s starting to make consistent contact now out of the No. 5 spot. He’s got the pure power you like to see in a clean-up guy, as well as the eye at the plate and — in theory — ability to hit both lefties and righties.
But it’s early. And Wedge doesn’t want to mess up the good thing he has going with Smoak at No. 5 by anchoring the offense around a second-year player.
As we’ve seen before, good hitters suddenly become overanxious ones when a lineup depends on them. Or, when they think a lineup depends on them and start trying to do too much.
And so, the M’s wait for something better to come along. Perhaps from Cust. Maybe from Smoak down the road.
That’s the one thing they’ve become really good at when it comes to finding a true No. 4 guy — the waiting.
They’ve been doing it a long time.

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