Looking Ahead: Jeff Clement
Today, we continue the irregularly scheduled Looking Ahead series, where I do a slightly more in depth post on a player from the M’s farm system. The Bryan LaHair feature generated a lot of positive response, so I’m going to try to do at least a couple more of these before the end of the year. This time around, we’re going to take a look at the Mariners Catcher Of The Future (TM), Jeff Clement.
Jeff Clement has been a big name prospect for a long time. He played in the Little League World Series in 1996, and he is still the nationwide high school home run champion, launching 75 bombs in his four years of prep baseball. The record was previously held by Drew Henson, and Clement got significant accolades in both his junior and senior years. A firm commitment to USC scared teams off, however, and the Twins finally selected him in the 12th round of the 2002 draft. He turned down their offer to attend college, and went on to have a very nice career for the Trojans.
The Mariners used the third overall selection in the 2005 draft to select Clement, going for a power left-handed bat at a position where they had no long term solution. Reports on him coming out of college were very good on his power, but not so good on other aspects of his game. His defense was considered a work in progress, and scouts were split on whether he would remain behind the plate or eventually move to first base. The Mariners insisted that they projected him as a catcher, and they worked with him extensively on his footwork and release to help improve his skills as a receiver.
Clement’s professional debut went very well, as he beat the tar out of the ball in the Midwest League. While low-A ball isn’t a huge challenge for a star college hitter, Wisconsin is still not an easy place to hit, and Clement posted a .319/.386/.522. He showed both patience and power, and while his contact rates (19.7% K, 9.7% BB) weren’t as good as they were in college, scouts were very impressed with his adjustment to using wood bats. He entered the 2006 season neck-and-neck with Adam Jones for the title of best prospect in the system.
He began the 2006 season with an assignment to Double-A San Antonio and continued hitting right out of the gate. His .288/.386/.525 line during the first 15 games of the season continued to show the skills he was known for – a good approach at the plate, knowledge of the strike zone, and serious power (11.1% K, 10.0% BB). However, just two weeks into the season, he required knee surgery to repair a torn miniscus in his left knee and remove bone chips from his left elbow. This sidelined him until June, and upon his return, the Mariners gave him a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma.
Things haven’t gone as well since his return. He’s struggling for the first time in his life as PCL pitchers have proven more of a challenge. He’s hitting just .252/.320/.354 in 206 at-bats, and his base skills that we know he has haven’t demonstrated themselves. He has just 14 walks in 206 at-bats and is failing to make consistent contact, striking out 47 times (20.1% K, 6.9% BB). He’s also not making consistent hard contact – just 13 of his 52 hits have gone for extra bases. This slump isn’t a case of him hitting the ball right at people. He’s just not making solid contact. He’s posting a ridiculous 27.9% IF/F rate. Essentially, when he hits it in the air, it’s not leaving the infield.
Clement just turned 23 this week, so there’s no real reason to be concerned about his struggles. The promotion to Tacoma was extremely aggressive to begin with, and when combined with the fact that he had missed six weeks due to an injury, it’s not a big surprise that he’s experiencing an adjustment period. The skillset of power and patience is still there, but he just needs to adjust to better pitchers and start making better contact more frequently.
Clement’s struggles in Tacoma have made it easy to have him begin the 2007 season back in the PCL and ignore the talks about what to do with him and Kenji Johjima when Clement is major league ready. The team is wisely taking a “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” approach, realizing that many things can happen over the course of time, and making a decision now based on Clement’s projected arrival time isn’t in the best interests of the franchise.
I’m firmly against the suggestions of moving Clement to another position to get his bat to the majors sooner. With the additions of Ben Broussard and Chris Snelling to the line-up on a regular basis, the Mariners have added two major league quality left-handed bats that they didn’t have a month ago. Despite all the cries for “left handed sock” that we have heard the past year, the current line-up is actually fairly well balanced, with Ichiro, Ibanez, Broussard, and Snelling all swinging quality bats from the left side.
The M’s would be wise to let Jeff Clement force his way into the major leagues, rather than rearranging the deck chairs to try to push up his timetable. With Johjima around, the Mariners don’t have a hole to fill at the catcher position, and the team has enough other options at 1B/DH that moving him from behind the dish shouldn’t be an option. His receiving skills have developed nicely, and his defensive reputation is significantly better now than it was a year ago.
With Jeff Clement and Adam Jones, the Mariners have two strong up-the-middle building blocks for their future sitting just half an hour south of Safeco Field. While they gave in to the temptation of bringing Jones up to fill a need, the team would do well to ignore any similar unctions they get with Jeff Clement. Give him another year in Tacoma, and he’ll let you know when he’s ready for the show.