The 2010 Mariners
While I’m sure Zduriencik and company don’t want to get off to a bad start and lose 100 games next year, it seems clear that the direction this team is looking to build beyond 2009, and it’s unlikely the M’s will be contenders next year. So, if we write off 2009, what about 2010? Is there enough talent in the organization to support the idea that this team could win 90+ games in two years?
Let’s take a look at what’s here now, what it might it look like in two years, and what’s missing. Today, we’ll do the infield.
Catcher: Kenji Johjima, Jeff Clement, Rob Johnson, Adam Moore
While I think there’s a decent chance Kenji bounces back a bit next year, by 2010 he’ll be on his way to his 34th birthday, and the list of catchers who perform well at that age and beyond is very, very short. If we consider his 2006 and 2007 performances to be something close to his true talent, then even a normal aging curve from there (where his horrible 2008 is ignored) would have him lose a pretty good chunk of his value by the time 2010 rolls around. He might have enough juice in his bat to be a decent backup, but that’s probably the best case scenario.
As for the three kids, I’ve expressed my reservations about Clement’s future behind the plate, and I still feel like he’ll end up at first base sooner or later. They can afford to give him 2009 to prove his skeptics wrong, but I’m not counting on him as a long term option as a backstop. Rob Johnson just doesn’t have adequate major league offensive skills, but should stick as a backup thanks to his throwing ability. That leaves Adam Moore, who hasn’t played a game above Double-A yet, but has hit very well the last two years and is a bit better than Clement behind the plate.
In 2010, Moore will be 26, and right now, he looks like the best internal candidate for the everyday catcher role. He has to conquer Triple-A, prove that he can get around on good fastballs, and continue to improve behind the plate, but there’s some potential there for him to be a .270/.320/.400 hitter by 2010, and that’s a pretty valuable player behind the plate. With Johjima and Johnson around to fight for the backup role, the team should have a reasonably productive catcher tandem.
First Base: Jeff Clement, Dennis Raben
There isn’t exactly a great crop here – Clement’s never played an inning of first base in his life and has been extremely resistant to spending any time there, while Raben played the outfield in Everett this summer. There’s real questions about whether Clement would or could adjust to first base, and Raben would have to develop very quickly in order to be a quality major league first baseman in 18 months. In reality, the M’s need to find a stop gap here (Brad Nelson, anyone?) who can give them time to figure out where Clement fits and allow Raben to develop naturally and get to the big leagues when he’s ready rather than when the organization needs him.
Second Base: Jose Lopez, Luis Valbuena, Yuniesky Betancourt, Tug Hulett
Lopez had his best offensive season of his career, and at age 24, showed signs of what is hopefully real improvement that can be carried forward. He’s under contract through 2011 for minimal amounts of money, so the question is more whether the organization is comfortable enough with his defense going forward. It’s a real question, honestly – he’s already in mediocre physical shape and his footwork leaves a lot to be desired. The bat is probably good enough to allow for some defensive flaws, but is having him play an up the middle position optimal?
If Luis Valbuena’s bat develops, the answer is probably not. Valbuena flashed some serious range during his time in Seattle, and comes with the added bonuses of actually taking pitches and hitting left-handed, both of which the Mariners have something of a shortage of. He doesn’t have Lopez’s long ball ability, but there’s gap power in his bat, and by 2010, he should be a bit stronger than he is now. Even if he’s not as good offensively, the defensive difference and the LH stick probably make him the preferable internal choice for manning the second sack in 2010.
And, of course, if Betancourt is displaced at shortstop (as we’ll talk about in a second), shifting him to second base is an option as well. Hulett’s probably a utility player in the majors, but he could be better than people expect. Regardless of what ends up happening, it seems like the M’s have enough internal choices to where this isn’t a position they necessarily need to pursue outside players.
Shortstop: Yuniesky Betancourt
And here, we see a glaring hole in the organization. Betancourt’s got problems, as we’ve noted all year, and there aren’t any other internal options. If he got hurt, I really don’t know what they’d do next year – sliding Beltre over from third might be their best option, and that’s kinda sad. This is certainly a position that needs to be addressed from a depth perspective, and potentially from a finding-a-new-starter option. Yuni’s regression with the glove has left him as a +1 win player rather than the +2 to +3 win player we thought he might be, and that makes him more of a good back-up/part-time player than a franchise cornerstone.
With Grant Green one of the main options for the second pick in the draft, as well as guys like J.J. Hardy available in trade this winter, the M’s will have to seriously consider whether they want to go forward with Betancourt at shortstop. At the least, they need to get a realistic alternative into the organization this year.
Third Base: Adrian Beltre, Matt Tuiasosopo, Jose Lopez
If Zduriencik realizes how good Beltre is, and they can talk him into signing a new contract, keeping him around isn’t a bad plan. He’s the team’s best position player and extremely underrated around the game, as we’ve noted many times – his combination of average bat and great glove are not easily replaced.
If he’s traded, Tui seems to be the heir apparent. He made significant strides with his bat this year, and could be a pretty solid high average/gap power hitter by 2010, potentially developing more long ball power later in his career. However, the defense… it’s not good. His footwork needs a lot of work, and for a former football player, he doesn’t move all that well. Right now, he’s a real stretch there, but he’s young enough that we shouldn’t condemn him to first base just yet. He’s going to have to make some pretty big strides to be a solid defender at the hot corner, though, and if he doesn’t, the average bat/bad defense combination makes for a pretty marginal player.
The other internal option would be shifting Lopez to third. This would probably be the way to go if his bat continues to take a step forward and Valbuena develops a lot faster than Tui. In that case, moving Lopez to the hot corner would hide some of his range issues and still allow the team to benefit from a low cost, league average (or slightly better) hitter. He’s never going to be Beltre defensively, but he’d be okay at third.
Based on the individual positions and their respective depths, here’s how I’d peg the likely infield for 2010:
Optimistic: Moore-Clement-Valbuena-New Guy-Lopez
Most Likely: Johjima-New Guy-Valbuena-Betancourt-Lopez