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March 20, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Leadoff by committee for Mariners? Seems tough to avoid it

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Yesterday afternoon, I went on 710 ESPN Seattle on the Bob & Groz show and they stumped me right off the bat by asking who was going to hit leadoff for the Mariners. Who indeed? Sure, I’ve got the same list many of you have. But who would be the go-to guy? Tough to find an answer to that one. It’s one of the reasons I thought the Mariners might go harder after Michael Bourn.

Simply put, they don’t have a leadoff guy right now. They had Ichiro for years, but did not replace him when he left. Dustin Ackley was not the guy to go into this season with, primarily because of how badly he performed last season. The last thing you want to do with a guy who has yet to establish much of anything in the majors is saddle him with a batting order role that actually requires some responsibility — as I belive the first four or five spots in an order actually do.

After that, you can throw in whatever’s left.

But to bat a guy leadoff? Well, you’d better know he can handle it.

For the Mariners this year, they just don’t have a prototypical leadoff guy. I’d setlle for them just going with a guy who can get on base.

Based on recent history, they don’t really have that either.

That’s why I’ll go with the leadoff-by-committee theory. Right now, I see the best leadoff option as Franklin Gutierrez, but he’s limited in the fact that…well, he’s limited. When you haven’t had a remotely productive season since 2009 and it’s now 2013, that’s a problem. His health remains a concern, since he’s played just once in a week and hasn’t played the field in more than that.

To be an everyday leadoff hitter, you have to play every day. Even when healthy, Gutierrez is not that guy. The best the Mariners can reasonaly expect out of Gutierrez this season is five games out of every seven. So, that means they need another leadoff hitter for two, maybe even three, games per week. My money would be on Saunders for that, since if you’re going to rest Gutierrez, it should be against right-handed pitching and Michael Saunders makes for his natural center field and leadoff alter-ego versus right-handers.

The Mariners have also experimented with Jason Bay at leadoff. Not such a good idea, I don’t think. The only time this spring he hasn’t crushed the ball is when he’s batting first. All of a sudden, he forgets how to get on base. It may mean nothing, but why mess with the juju, man? I’d stick with Gutierrez and Saunders and then go find a leadoff guy next winter.

And I’d keep Ackley out of it, though I’m not sure the Mariners would agree. But Ackley is a guy they’ve always viewed as a No. 2 or No. 3 hitter. Not as a leadoff guy. And even if you thought he profiled that way because of speed and on-base potential, well, he isn’t there yet.

Let him get there first, then move him up.

The days of givng roles to players who haven’t earned them or demonstrated a capacity to handle them have to be done. This can’t be a never-ending audition. At some point, members of the Seattle Mariners will have to earn their standing. No more 22-year-old rookie¬†Jesus Montero types batting clean-up, please. We’ve seen the results of those experiments. If you have nobody else but Ackley to bat leadoff, then spend the money on Bourn next time.

Ackley needs to get back to being a former No. 2 overall pick. He can’t do that batting leadoff and the Mariners clearly agree, or they would not be bouncing him down to No. 7 or No. 8 in the order.

So, Gutierrez for now, followed by Saunders. If Ackley tears it up and you want him back in there, by all means, break out the beaker and experiment. But if your ultimate goal is to really have Ackley bat No. 2 or No. 3, why bother with leadoff? Let him become a consistent MLB player first. Anyhow, we’ll see what happens.

I’m thinking Gutierrez, Saunders and maybe some Bay for leadoff, since I’m not supposed to let spring training results help base my decisions in Bay’s case. This could be an issue for the team going forward in what’s been an otherwise highly impressive, optimistic camp. With Ichiro, the leadoff job was settled. Now, it’s ¬†as up in the air here as it is for any of the other 29 teams.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty high on this Mariners offense overall. But leadoff is a glaring weakness. Then again, it’s tough to do worse from an OBP perspective than the Mariners did the past two years out of the leadoff spot. A heartbeat from Gutierrez and Saunders (and maybe even Bay) should be enough.

But keep Ackley out of it, please. Let him do the Justin Smoak thing, figure out why he has good days and bad days at the plate, then maybe consider putting Ackley at leadoff once he actually does something in games that count (which Smoak, I’ll admit, hasn’t done either.)

It’s too bad spring training has to end. Then again, this is a problem the Mariners could see coming from many miles away this past winter. The next time anyone wants to debate payroll and what an extra $10 million or $15 million can do (by a team that turned a near $6-million profit on an 87-loss team with tumbling attendance), I’ll point to Bourn and the leadoff issue that now looms a little larger than most areas on this club.

If Gutierrez and/or Saunders gets on base at a .340 clip or more, then it’s a non-issue. If they can’t, well, let the fun begin.

 

Comments | More in leadoff | Topics: Dustin Ackley, franklin gutierrez, Jason Bay

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