The Glaring Weakness
13-9, first place in the AL West at the end of April. Everyone in Seattle would have taken that if offered at the beginning of the year. The first month saw more good than bad, and the M’s have put themselves in a position to be contenders for the division this year.
As contenders, then, the requirements change a bit. If you’re serious about winning, then you don’t get to wait until problems manifest themselves as huge black holes before you fix them. You have to be ahead of the curve, acting before disaster strikes rather than trying to react after it sinks your season. Contenders have proactive mindsets when it comes to shaping their roster. So, if the M’s are going to take a run at the AL West this year, they have to be willing to adjust some preseason plans in order to maximize the team’s chances of winning.
For me, the biggest glaring flaw with this team is the quintet of right-handed bats that all have the same basic approach at the plate. Adrian Beltre, Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Franklin Gutierrez, and Kenji Johjima/Rob Johnson occupy five positions as everyday players, and they’re all cut from the same cloth – right-handed, aggressive gap power guys who can hit a fastball if you make a mistake but are more than willing to get themselves out by chasing pitches out of the zone. There are different levels of abilities within these five, but they’re all the same type of hitter. And they all struggle to hit right-handed pitchers, especially righties who have a decent sinker/slider combination.
It doesn’t even have to be a good pitcher. Jered Weaver and James Shields shut us down, but so did Rick Porcello, Edwin Jackson, Bartolo Colon, and Trevor Cahill. When the M’s run into a right-handed sinker/slider pitcher, they’re in trouble, because odds are they aren’t going to get much from the Beltre-Lopez-Betancourt-Gutierrez-Joh/Johnson part of the line-up.
That leaves an enormous amount of pressure on the four LH bats, one of whom isn’t much of a hitter. Two of the LH bats are vulnerable to left-handed relievers as well, so our offense can be fairly easily neutralized by any team with a right-handed starter and a halfway competent left-handed reliever. That’s a big problem.
In addition, the entire bench is right-handed. If any of the four left-handed bats need a day off, they get replaced with a right-handed bat. If you want to inject Balentien into the line-up to add some more power, you’re simply adding yet another hitter who struggles against that same pitcher type. The M’s just have too many right-handed, free-swinging, fastball-oriented hitters.
If they want to win this year, this is going to have to be addressed. One of the five is going to have to surrender their everyday spot in order for the team to get a more patient left-handed bat in the line-up and give the offense some balance.
What are the options? I see three, personally.
1. Try to trade for a middle infielder who bats left-handed or switch-hits. There aren’t a lot of them, and most of the good ones just aren’t available, but you might be able to talk the Braves into a deal that involved Jose Lopez and Kelly Johnson. Maybe. Probably not, but it’d be worth exploring, at least.
2. Bring up Jeff Clement and give him significant time behind the plate. This is almost certainly not going to happen, as the M’s have made a conscious decision to value defense over offense behind the plate. If Clement can’t get out of Tacoma when Johjima’s on the DL, he’s certainly not going to take over the job when both Joh and Rob Johnson are healthy. We can complain about this one all we want, but Clement doesn’t have a future behind the plate with this organization.
3. Trade Beltre, move Russ Branyan to third, and replace him with a left-handed hitting first baseman. This one is extremely unlikely and probably wouldn’t work anyway, because Beltre is one of the reasons this team has a chance to make the playoffs. But, if we’re throwing out ideas, it’s at least in the realm of possibility. As a free agent at the end of the year, the M’s could conceivably get an offer for him that they felt was worth pulling the trigger on, and then attempt to patch the hole they just created by acquiring someone like Nick Johnson and shifting Branyan across the diamond. It’s almost unheard of for teams in contention to make radical shifts like this, which would involve getting away from the defense-first orientation of the roster, but it’s at least possible. A ridiculous longshot, yes, but maybe one worth exploring if the right situations present itself.
As you can see, of the three options that I can come up with, two of them are basically non-starters. That leaves the M’s shopping for a middle infielder who can bat left-handed. That doesn’t seem particularly likely either, honestly.
That’s why this is such a problem. It’s not easily resolved. This team was constructed poorly by the last administration, and it leaves the current front office in a predicament. Perhaps the best test yet of Jack Zduriencik’s abilities as a GM will be to see if he can solve this rubix cube.