Well, That Complicates Things

Dave · May 6, 2009 at 7:44 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Remember how I mentioned on Monday that the Texas series was more meaningful than usual games in May, because 17-10 with a 4+ game lead in the division made the “buy or sell” question seem a lot more cut and dried? At 15-12 with Silva taking the hill today and a beleaguered bullpen who just lost their best pitcher, welcome to confusion-land.

The M’s now stand just two games ahead of the Angels with 135 games to play. That’s not exactly a tough hole to climb out of, especially with reinforcements coming. John Lackey had his first rehab start for Salt Lake last night (against Tacoma, ironically), and could rejoin the Angels rotation next week. Ervin Santana isn’t far behind, and Vladimir Guerrero is running the bases and could be back on the team by the end of the month.

I don’t think the Angels are a great team, even with those three, but they’re a better team than the Mariners. The we-can-contend-this-year logic was based upon taking advantage of a broken Angels roster at the start of the year and building up a sizable lead that would take LAA the rest of the summer to overcome. Losing these last two games, with Felix and Bedard on the hill, put a pretty serious dent in that plan.

So now the M’s go forward with Silva-Washburn-Jakubauskas in the upcoming three games, and all three of those games feature right-handed starters for the opponents. Just like Vicente Padilla, Sidney Ponson does just fine against righties but gets tortured by lefties – unfortunately, the M’s just don’t have enough LH bats in the line-up, so Ponson faces his easiest possible matchup today. Same deal with Bannister tomorrow. Don’t be surprised if the M’s offense continues to “struggle”, but it’s not a slump, it’s a platoon match-up problem, and it won’t end until the team either addresses the ridiculous right-handedness of the position players or the team faces a bunch of left-handed pitchers.

They can only control the former, of course. If the Mariners view themselves as legitimate contenders for the AL West this year, Zduriencik and company are going to have to be willing to make some changes to the roster. I know I sound like a broken record, but the team can’t continually run out five or six right-handed bats – who all have exactly the same weaknesses – against other teams’ right-handed starters. It’s just offensive suicide.

Beltre will hit eventually, and there’s nothing the organization can really do about it if he doesn’t anyway. Gutierrez has been one of the shining beacons of hope in the first month of the season. But the Betancourt-Lopez-Johjima/Johnson grouping are both a huge problem and one that is conceivably addressable.

Yuni needs a day off or five. Here’s his second at-bat against Padilla yesterday:


I don’t care that Ronny Cedeno isn’t the long term answer at shortstop – that’s the kind of approach that has to earn Yuni a day on the bench and a lecture about being an idiot at the plate. He’s the easiest out in baseball. If you can’t fix him, you at least don’t have to play him every day.

Unfortunately, finding a left-handed hitting shortstop is hard. Finding one that would be available in trade right now is almost impossible. The team is basically stuck with a right-handed bat, be it Yuni or Cedeno, at the SS spot.

That leaves second base and catcher. It’s a lot easier to find a left-handed hitting second baseman, and there are some that should be available. Adam Kennedy is hanging out in Triple-A, hitting .295/.382/.462 while waiting for about 45 people to get injured so he can join the Rays. The Braves could probably be talked out of Kelly Johnson, given the right offer. The D’Backs season is basically over, so Felipe Lopez will be available in the not-too-distant future. There are options here.

The team should not be married to Jose Lopez. He’s not that good. He hits lefties decently enough, but his approach at the plate is still miserable and his power is average at best. He’s a +1 to +2 win player whose potential is mostly a myth, and he’s a terrible fit for this roster. Swapping out Lopez in order to get a LH bat in the line-up at second base should absolutely be on the table.

But, there are reasons why this might not be the best time to trade Lopez. The timing of it is tough to pull off, no doubt. It wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do, and the safer route is to let him keep playing and hope he starts hitting some line drives pretty soon.

That leaves the catcher spot. Kenji’s not going anywhere with his contract, but Rob Johnson… he just isn’t a major league player. I know the team loves his personality and the way he interacts with the pitching staff, but at some point, they have to view this rationally, not emotionally. The staff isn’t performing any better with him behind the plate than they are with Kenji. He’s not good at blocking balls in the dirt or throwing out runners.

And he’s one of the worst hitting position players in major league baseball. He has no power, a lousy approach at the plate, and oh yea, he’s right-handed. He’s better than his .216/.241/.314 line so far, but not that much better. He’s an offensive black hole on a team that can’t afford any more of those.

I don’t want to drag out the Jeff Clement argument any more than we have to. I don’t think Clement’s a major league catcher long term either. Pragmatically, we probably need to view him more as a 1B/DH prospect or trade bait than any kind of catcher-of-the-future. That said, he’s somewhat capable of squatting behind the plate and receiving pitches while also stepping to the plate in the left-handed batters box and working some counts. He’s struggled pretty badly in Tacoma since he became a new father (he’s not sleeping much at home, so don’t be surprised that he’s playing better on road trips), but his slumps still dwarf the offensive production of Rob Johnson.

If the team isn’t willing to make a move at second base yet, or thinks they need to give Lopez some more time to get out of his funk, then they are forced to consider swapping out Clement and Johnson, regardless of how much they like Johnson’s work with pitchers and think Clement had a bad spring. If the team wants to try to win baseball games this year, they can’t let sentiment get in the way of logic too often – the margin for error isn’t big enough.

The first 25 games, the team was a nice story. If they want to continue to be a nice story for the rest of the summer, changes are needed. Otherwise, we’re still playing for 2010, and we might as well start letting the world know that Bedard, Washburn, and Beltre will be available in the summer.

The M’s are getting pretty close to decision time. If they’re going to try to sneak out a division title, then they have to do some things to make it more likely. If they’re going to stick with the roster they have, then we’re probably sellers in July.


54 Responses to “Well, That Complicates Things”

  1. joser on May 6th, 2009 3:13 pm

    We can be puzzled, but I think we need to refrain from projecting psychoanalytical theories onto his actions without considerably more evidence. He’s shown a willingness to experiment (though the lineup thing seems to have settled down, perhaps temporarily) but one aspect of that may be a wish to see for himself how players respond to situations. This might also explain his seeming unwillingness to pinch hit in obvious situations: he wants to see for himself how bad these guys are when facing a same-handed pitcher. Now, we may judge that to be silly — Mike Sweeney has 15 years of platoon splits to look at, rebuilt knees or not, so there’s not much to learn there. But I’m going to reserve judgment at least a little longer. Maybe he is paralyzed; maybe he is a “show me” experimentalist, I’d don’t know. But I’m certainly not going to guess until I’ve seen more.

    If only I had written a post about Wakamatsu recently…

    Actually, I think you wrote two. But they were, like, an entire week ago. Things move fast, and our memories are short….

  2. SonOfZavaras on May 6th, 2009 3:18 pm

    I couldn’t agree more, Dave. The best words I’ve read assessing the full situation.

    I LIKE Rob Johnson, mind you.

    I think he’s probably a guy you don’t mind if your sister says she wants to date. But I hate, hate, hate his approach at the plate, his batting stance and I don’t see any way that he’s going to be much better than what he is right now.

    Decision time is very, very near. If they don’t, the abyss of not doing anything can be mammoth.

  3. harry on May 6th, 2009 3:39 pm

    We can be puzzled, but I think we need to refrain from projecting psychoanalytical theories onto his actions without considerably more evidence.

    Right, that was sloppy of me. I’m mostly just looking at some long frustration (mostly with Yuni, and watching him at bat) and wondering why it’s taking so long to deal with. I latched onto a theory that lets me still think positively of Wakamatsu’s judgment on offense. I have to hope he has something planned.

  4. joser on May 6th, 2009 5:08 pm

    Yeah, I understand (and share) the frustration. It’s easy to just compare numbers and play at being GM, swapping one player for another without any other consideration. But we always have to remember there’s a cost to doing anything, and we don’t know what they’re doing that doesn’t get reported (and sometimes even when it does). The guys like Wakamatsu and Zduriencik who are actually doing these jobs are subject to constraints and considerations that we’re only dimly aware of — and while “keeping the fans happy” might be one that looms large in our minds, it almost certainly isn’t the first priority in theirs. I’d be more worried that they’re hanging onto Betancourt because they think he still can be “fixed” in some way. But of course that’s pure speculation too.

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