Position Roundtables: Right Field

March 3, 2006 · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners · 47 Comments 

Starting Rightfielder: Ichiro!


Context is a tricky thing. By pretty much every standard, Ichiro had a “down year” in 2005. His average dropped 69 points, and he posted the lowest BA, OBP, and OPS of his U.S. career. His .786 OPS was basically the same as Raul Ibanez’s, and we’re all upset that the M’s are giving Ibanez a contract extension. A cursory look at Ichiro’s numbers reveal a pretty mediocre season.

But, as usual, cursory looks at statistics can be misleading. During his down year of 2005, Ichiro was still one of the five best rightfielders in the game. Seriously.

He posted a .289 EqA, which ranks him 7th out of 25 right fielders who made at least 250 outs (basically, guys who play regularly). On a per at-bat basis, the only RFs who were more productive hitters were Vlad, Giles, Sheffield, Abreu, Jenkins, and Emil Brown (?!?).

EqA underrates Ichiro a bit, however, because he’s more durable than most players and stays in the line-up all the time. When you go to a counting statistic to incorporate playing time, such as runs above replacement, Ichiro moves up to 5th, passing Jenkins and Brown. He wasn’t in the offensive class of the Big Four, but he wasn’t leaps and bounds behind, either. Sheffield and Abreu were both worth about 10 runs more offensively than Ichiro, Sheffield about 20, and Vlad about 25.

Now, defense. Ichiro’s clearly the best defensive player of the group, even if he may not be quite as good as he was a few years ago. Sheffield is a legitimately horrible defender. Guerrero’s a little below average. Giles and Abreu are about average. Ichiro’s glove was worth at least 10-15 runs more than Sheffields. He’s probably 5-10 runs better than the other three.

Guess what? He basically catches Sheffield and Abreu in overall value. He’s still clearly behind Vlad and Giles, but the gap isn’t astronomical. He’s just not the best right fielder in the game. No big deal.

However, here’s the point no one seems to remember; he’s clearly in the top 5, and probably in the top 3. He was something like the 3rd-5th best right fielder in baseball in his worst season since coming over from Japan.

Yes, he only hit .300, he doesn’t walk a lot, and he lacks power. But he’s still every bit the star that Gary Sheffield or Bobby Abreu is. He’s a legitimately great player. Remember that the next time a national columnist tells you his sub-800 OPS makes him a liability.


It always amazes me that the same people who advocate looking for new
ways to solve problems and unconventional thinking like to tee off on
Ichiro because he’s not a prototypical right fielder. So what? It’s also
interesting that people seem to focus on what Ichiro doesn’t quite do:
he steals over 30 bases a year, but he needs to be more aggressive. He
hits for a high average, but he’d be better/worse if he went for more
power/took more pitches/whatever.

You touch on one of the most important things Ichiro offers that doesn’t
get enough credit: he plays and plays and plays. Maybe too much, but
having Ichiro means that every game a part of the problem’s pre-solved:
in right field, you have one of the best players in the game. Now work
out the rest of the lineup.

One of the reasons I’m optimistic is that we’ve seen Ichiro toy with the
power swing when he feels it’s appropriate. It clearly requires him to
take a different approach (he looks much more coiled) and he doesn’t
break it out that often, but I think that Ichiro’s well-equipped to
adapt to the effects of aging. The downside is that if being more
selective really does mess him up, then his aging path is going to be
really strange: where most players gain power and patience while their
average drops, if not swinging isn’t an option for him and he stops
being able to beat out infield hits, that’s a tough decline.
Fortunately, that’s not going to happen next year. Also, he could
switch-hit if he really wanted. I like mentioning that.

I won’t even bring up whether he’ll play a lot better on an improved and
more competitive team. If it happens, great.

While there are some excellent reasons to stay away from the park this
year, there are a couple – Felix, Johjima, Soriano, the development of
Lopez and Betancourt, for starters – but he’ll do something over the
course of the year that makes it all worthwhile.

On another note, why is Ibanez the annoited face of the team? Is it
because he’s more gregarious, has a family that photographs well (and
who he’ll let be photographed), and has a nice litttle storyline? Maybe
it’s me, but I recognize that even as there are different Ichiros:
– the private hermit
– the effortlessly competent and solemn star player

and that makes it hard to market, Ichiro is amazing, I have seen Ichiro
make plays I think back on and still send the tingles down my back. He
holds the single-season hits record. He’s so cool I had to put on a
parka just to write this and my hands are still getting numb. What’s
Ibanez ever done that’s made people stand up and applaud until their
hands hurt? If anyone on this team is an heir to the quiet dedication
and contributions of Edgar, it’s Ichiro.

Anyway, here’s my cool thing of the day: it’s the Ichiro outcome-o-matic.

This is what happens when his at-bat ends on that count. Note that he can only walk on a 3-x count, and sometimes he sacrifices (argh) which explains the OBP thing.

Position Roundtables: Starting Center Fielder

February 25, 2006 · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners · 44 Comments 

Starting Center Fielder: Jeremy Reed


Like Jose Lopez, we’ve written a lot about Jeremy Reed the past year and a half. Like Lopez, perception of his abilities have been all over the board, as people responded wildly to performance spikes. After he nearly hit .400 in a September trial last year, the public opinion was overly excited, labeling him ready to be an elite player immediately. Following a disappointing rookie season offensively, the fanbase has amassed thousands of broken bones leaping off the bandwagon.

This is a case where perception just hasn’t matched reality. Reed was never the second best prospect in baseball, despite what Baseball Prospectus tried to tell folks. He wasn’t ready for stardom after a streak of singles falling in during his debut in Seattle. And, on the flipside, he’s also not a guy who can’t hit for power, is a poor baserunner, and amasses all his value by being an elite defensive player. The myths of Jeremy Reed have swung from one side to the other, but, astonishingly, few people seem willing to see him for what he really is.

Jeremy Reed is a high contact hitter with gap power, average speed, good instincts on the bases, and a solid understanding of the strike zone. He doesn’t have world class range in center field, and his physical skills are best suited defensively for a corner spot, though he doesn’t really have the arm to play right field regularly.

That’s all been true for three years, but because of extreme performances on either side, he’s become a polarizing player. Hopefully, 2006 is the year where people can finally see Reed for what he truly is; a very solid young player who excels at nothing but has a solid all around game. He’s not a gold glover and he won’t win a batting title, but he’s a talented player making the league minimum and filling a hole at a premium position. Oh, and he’s just 24 years old. We should all be glad the Mariners didn’t deal him.


Reed demonstrates a larger phenomenon we see a lot in players, which is the “star or scrub” polarizing effect. Few players are allowed to be just good, or okay: they have to have something they do that’s excellent, or they must be vilified. You see this most often with position players: a catcher who doesn’t hit very well will gradually cultivate reputations as defensive wizards, while those that can hit become barely competent glove men.

This is Reed’s problem: he comes in to play center and there’s no way he’ll be as good defensively as Cameron was. At the same time, his hitting was pretty awful, so he ended up being attacked from both sides.

Which means he must totally suck. There’s no room for players who are cheap and help the team out if they’re not definately good one way or the other. And that, really, is Reed’s misfortune. If he hits .280 with better walks, he’ll get out from a lot of the criticism for not helping offensively, but he still won’t be seen as a key contributor, because he’s not going to be a good fielder either. But being average, young, and cheap helps the team a lot.

There’s a way out of this, though — if Reed can do even better making contact, he becomes a quite valuable player quite quickly. He’s fast enough running that if he gets his average up to .300 he’ll hit 30 doubles pretty easily, and then you’d really like to have him hitting in front of some high-average guys (maybe ninth, ahead of Ichiro) to get the most value from that.

But that’s beside the point. Reed, even as an average center fielder, is worth a lot to the team. Adam Jones is great and all, but he’s not going to be here this year for certain (and despite the justified enthusiasm for his performance in the minors, if you look at his five-year forecast, he doesn’t develop into the kind of player Reed is now for a couple of years).

Reed’s here now, and he’s fine. He’s certainly not a problem for the team. He might want to talk to his agent about trying to cultivate an image as a joker, or a dirt dog, or something — if he had some kind of easily-identifiable hook other than (as you note) failed super-prospect, I think he’d be forgiven for not being amazingly awesome. And he deserves that.


I have no issue with Jeremy Reed. My only issue with his 2005 season? That Mike Hargrove chose to sit him against lefties on a number of occasions — while it’s true Reed struggled mightily against left-handers, the team wasn’t going anywhere anyway and he’s a young player who needs experience. But I digress.

Given his minor league numbers and the tools Dave mentioned earlier — gap power, contact hitter, solid strike zone judgement — Reed appears, to me at least, to be in line for a big step forward in 2006. I’d stick him in the #2 slot in batting order and leave him there for a few months even if he gets off to a slow start, because I can’t imagine he has another .254/.322/.352 season in him. Making nearly the major league minimum, playing solid defense, and hitting .280/.350/.440, he’s the sort of player you’re thrilled to have around.

At least until Adam Jones is ready.


Adam Jones, by the way, is a good prospect, clearly the second best guy in the organization behind Jeff Clement. But I think as fans we’ve been far too quick to write his name into the 2007 line-up. The guy has played less than a handful of games in center field, and while his offensive performance was solid, he’s still got a ways to go. The potential is definitely there, but he’s not knocking on the door. He’s a ways off, and a lot can go wrong before he hits the show. There’s no way I’d be making any kind of roster decisions in trying to make room for Adam Jones. When he’s ready, they’ll find a spot for him, but he’s still a pretty high risk prospect, and there’s a significant chance that he won’t be ready for quite a while.

Position Roundtables: Left Field

February 20, 2006 · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners · 44 Comments 

Starting Left Fielder: Raul Ibanez


Before 2005, Raul Ibanez had never walked 50 times in a season. His career high, 49, was set in 2003 and came in 608 plate appearances. Last year, he walked 71 times in 614 plate appearances. That’s a 22 walk jump over his prior best. Or, for those who prefer percentages, he walked in 11.5 percent of his at-bats. In his 2003 season, he walked in just 8 percent of his at-bats. At age 33, Ibanez significantly increased the amount of free passes he took. We’re big fans of the walk as an offensive weapon, and we wish all of the Mariner hitters would stroll down to first base more often than once a week.

However, in this instance, I’m worried. It’s not just the increase in walks, which in isolation would be a good thing. Ibanez also set a career high in strikeouts with 99. Additionally, he saw a drop in power and a change in extra base hit distribution, with more of his extra base hits tending toward the home run side and less towards the doubles side. As players age, they lose speed in both their bat and feet, and they often compensate by adjusting their approach to only swing when they think they can drive the ball over the wall. This shows up in the statistics as an increase in home run rate, walk rate, strikeout rate, and a decline in batting average and doubles. Ibanez fits the mold to a tee.

Ibanez has reached the decline phase of his career. How long he can hold off the inevitable end is really up to him, how hard he works, and whether he’s willing to accept his new skillset rather than trying to force himself to still be the player he was several years ago. We saw first hand-hello Bret Boone!-what happens to a player who refuses to accept the changes in his physical skills near the end of his career. The end can come very, very quickly.

So, in order to help Ibanez fight the effects of aging, the M’s have… made him go from DH’ing to chasing balls around the most spacious left field area in the league? Bill James showed years ago that moves left along the defensive spectrum-in other words, going from an easier position to field to a harder one, such as from 3rd base to 2nd base or left field to center field-often end in disaster, and not just defensively. Now, its true that Ibanez did play left field occassionally the past few years, so he’s not changing positions per se, but I can’t believe that going from a regular DH to a regular fielder is going to help his body fight off the effects of getting older.

You can pencil Raul in for a .270/.350/.420 line and 550 at-bats, which is about what I’m expecting from him this year, but you have to keep the idea in your mind that there’s a chance that he’s just going to fall apart, that the effects of age are going to overtake him and he won’t resemble the same player we’ve seen the past few years. There’s a legitimate chance that, at some point this year or next year, Raul Ibanez is just going to be done.

And the M’s backup plans, in case that happens? A 35-year-old who can barely run and a 34-year-old who lost all his power and has admitted to using steroids. Fantastic.


In the USSM Department of Crow-Eating, we’ve got a prominent 8×10 glossy of Raul Ibanez. At least I do. The lefty stroke the Mariners said would be perfect for Safeco Field has been, and the deal that I thought would chain the team to a declining hitter has instead proven valuable.

Bravo, Raul, kudos, Mariners, and as for mea, how about a culpa?

That was then, though. Each decision is a new world, and it ultimately doesn’t matter if genius or folly brought you to a certain point — like Buckarooo Banzai says, wherever you go, there you are. Finding your way from there is the concern.

And I share Dave’s concerns, all of them: the worrisome statistical trends, Ibanez’ age, and his return to patrolling the outfield full-time. As for the current left-field backup plans, the best we can say about them is that they evidently do not include Richie Sexson.

Consider, also, that the M’s have added another flyball pitcher to the staff. Defensively, selecting from Ibanez, Carl Everett, Matt Lawton or Mike Morse is like asking Jarrod Washburn which flavor of hemlock he likes best.

Forgive me for infringing on Derek’s fanboy territorial borders, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if this was the year a certain Australian’s body held together? The artist known around these parts as Doyle features a potent bat plus a favorable PECOTA projection, and he’d be a defensive boon compared to any other currently-available option. The Mariners are hoping he’ll be ready by the All-Star Break.

Speaking of the future and of contingency plans, neither Everett nor Lawton is likely to help the team beyond 2006. Morse is not the answer. Being able to pencil in — quick, everyone knock wood — Chris Snelling as heir apparent outfielder would be the ideal solution.

That’s not me giving up on getting productivity from the left field slot in this or ensuing seasons. Truly, no one wants to go back to the days of Mariner Left Fielder rivalling Spinal Tap Drummer in terms of jobs with the least security.

Ideally, Ibanez continues to perform beyond what some of us have expected. In a sub-ideal world, he slides a bit, gets nicked up and misses a few games. At worst, Ibanez’ productivity collapses or his body fails him, leaving the Mariners with a ragtag revolving door out there.

As a wise man said in the last line of our previous roundtable, “If everything clicks, look out world. But rarely does everything click.”


Glad you brought up defense, Jeff. I didn’t want to drone on and on, so I left my initial comments to his offensive ability, but his performance with the leather is likely to have a much bigger impact on the team’s success in 2006.

For all the complaints about the arm that Randy Winn bought off of an 84-year-old lady and used to hurl balls back into the infield with, he was a darn good defensive left fielder. He covered a lot more ground than the average LF and helped keep the team among the leaders in fewest extra base hits allowed. Ibanez has a solid arm, but is about as swift as a suit of armor, and the lack of range is going to be noticable.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here; the outfield at Safeco is backwards in terms of defensive setup. While center field is still the most important position defensively, left field is not that far behind, with right field being the least important. The alignment of the walls is the big factor here. Simply put, the best chance for a double or a triple in Safeco is to hit one into the left center field alley. In most stadiums, right center or the right field line is the place for gap hits to turn into extra base knocks. However, because of Safeco’s short porch down the right field line and relativel shallow RF-CF gap, combined with the wall aiming caroms toward the center fielder, that isn’t the case in Seattle.

So, while it’s true that most teams can simply hide their worst defensive player in left field, the Mariners are not in that position. Left field is an important area for defensive value. Safeco is traditionally a flyball park, making outfield defense more important than in a neutral park, and it’s also a park that is at the extreme of run values on balls hit into the LF-CF gap. Balls hit there that are turned into outs are more beneficial than average, while balls hit there that get down for hits are more harmful than average.

In fact, if I was going to design a defensive spectrum for Safeco specifically, it would go SS-CF-LF-2B-3B-RF-1B. I’d argue that left field is the third most important defensive position (excluding catcher, a whole other animal) for the Mariners, and the fact that they’ve assembled a staff of flyball pitchers only emphasizes that.

Ibanez isn’t a catastrophe in left field. At the worst, he’ll probably cost the teams 20-30 runs over the course of the season from what they’ve been getting from Randy Winn. There’s a solid chance he’ll be better than that, and the real downgrade will only be in the 10-15 run range. But make no mistake; the M’s have sacrificed defense at a position they shouldn’t sacrifice defense. And they did it to get Carl Everett’s bat in the line-up.



I didn’t like the Ibanez signing at the time, and I’m still not crazy about it — I guess I’m not all that impressed by a corner OF/DH who hits .280/.350/.450. Dave’s projected .280/.350/.420 line borders on pathetic for the position, especially when you factor in the potential collapse and the hit the M’s are taking defensively. C’mon. Seriously? A sub-.800 OPS with poor defense? These are the kinds of guys who supposedly grow on trees in the minor leagues. Billy Beane probably has one such player at his house for dinner even as you’re reading this.

Granted, Ibanez won’t be the thing dragging the M’s down this year, as Bret Boone and the catchers were last year, but he’s certainly not a guy pushing them towards a winning season, either.

Position Roundtables: Starting Shortstop

February 9, 2006 · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners · 30 Comments 

Starting Shortstop: Yuniesky Betancourt


I think there’s pretty much a group consensus that Yuniesky Betancourt is a terrific defensive shortstop, yes? The kid makes some remarkable plays and has every tool you could possibly want in the field.

However, Wilson Valdez can play a pretty good shortstop as well, and we tossed him aside after two months of out-making last year. We love his defense, but the bottom line in major league baseball is still “can you hit?” There’s a clear line for minimal accepted offensive performance, no matter how good your defense is, that a player has to clear. Wilson Valdez was below that line. We’re counting on Betancourt being above that line. But how far above? How good a hitter can he be?

For the optimistic, look no further than his top PECOTA comparison – Barry Larkin. I mean, that’s a dream scenario right there. Larkin was one of the best shortstops of his generation and should probably end up in the Hall of Fame. And, for the first 600 at-bats of his major league career, he didn’t hit a whole lot.

For the pessimistic, look no further than the rest of his PECOTA comparisons – Tim Foli, Orlando Cabrera, Bucky Dent, and Juan Uribe are the next four.

The difference between Larkin and the guys who never developed into hitters? He commanded the strike zone, even from a young age. He didn’t walk a ton, but he always had more walks than strikeouts, and he wasn’t making easy outs on pitches well out of the strike zone. Right now, Betancourt doesn’t have that kind of plate discipline. He’s a hack, a free swinger who would rather chase a pitch outside and foul it off than stand there with the bat on his shoulder. And that puts massive limits on how good of a hitter he can be.

Betancourt doesn’t have the strength or the swing to be a home run hitter. At most, he’ll whack 10 a year, and that’s probably too high a number. His game is going to be completely based on getting on base and running around them. He’s got great raw speed that can allow him to turn almost any ball in the gap into a triple. That’s valuable. But his speed doesn’t help him when he’s walking back to the dugout after chasing another pitch in the dirt.

It’s odd to say, because he’s only 24 years old, but without a pretty significant change in his approach at the plate, Betancourt’s fairly close to his offensive ceiling. With his current hitting style, he’s a .300/.330/.420 guy when he’s going well. Make no mistake, that makes him a valuable player when combined with his defense, but it’s a far cry from Barry Larkin.

There are guys who have had a similar skillset as young players and improved drastically as their careers have gone on. Omar Vizquel is the obvious example, since we still can’t get over the fact that the M’s traded him for Felix Fermin. But those guys are not the norm. If you look at Betancourt’s PECOTA projection, it essentially paints a picture of a guy who is already fairly close to his offensive ceiling. Guys with his skillset have a much lower career improvement arc than someone like Jose Lopez. Just because he’s young doesn’t mean he’s going to get significantly better.

Here’s hoping he takes the Barry Larkin career path. But I’m not going to hold my breath.


I’ll take the Bucky Dent career path if it means he hits a monumental game-winning homer to beat our arch-rivals in a one-game playoff.

Or, to use a bit of debate jargon that Derek will appreciate, how about a permutation? Betancourt can hit like Larkin and have postseason heroics, too.

In all seriousness, though, isn’t it a bit more slippery to quantify Betancourt’s performance than it would be to assess the record of a player whose formative years were spent in the American minor leagues, or even Japan? Because the bulk of his experience took place in Cuba, we just don’t have the type of extensive statistical record we’d like to project Betancourt’s future value with full confidence.

Small sample size is more of an issue for him, it seems to me. Particularly in the case of fielding numbers, it’s important to look at as much data as you can.

To tease this idea out a bit, consider Pokey Reese. Though his signing didn’t work out, we were all for it because of his spectacular defensive play — something scouts and advanced defensive metrics agreed upon. Dave has made the case repeatedly that Reese, when healthy, saves so many runs with his glove that teams can afford to carry his bat. Which is, to be charitable,

Betancourt turned 23 in January of 2005, then spent part of the ensuing season in the minors and part in the majors. Reese turned 24 in June of 1997, and split time between AAA Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

Reese, that year in the minors, registered a.326 OBP and a .431 SLG, awfully close to Betancourt’s .311/.424 line in San Antonio and Tacoma. In the majors, Betancourt (.296,.370) was much better in his 211 at-bats than Reese was (.284.287) in his 397.

We can be fairly certain Betancourt is going to swing a bigger stick than Pokey. This can be said even though the M’s shortstop has a paltry amount of plate appearances in the states. Simply put, we know Reese is a banjo hitter because he’s demonstrated that over several years.

In conjunction with that, though, Reese has also demonstrated his superlative fielding over that same period. Scouts and stats alike say that he’s been a special player, plus — and this is key — they’re able to quantify just how special. That’s a result of having a wealth of information at they’re disposal.

When you look at Betancourt, you see a fantastic defensive player. Scouts adore him, and that’s great information to have.

But is he the kind of over-the-top grounder vacuum that means he can hit like an arthritic Scrabble player and still net you tons of runs each year? Very possibly, and I would tend to say yes — but I can’t tell you that for certain, and I don’t know if anyone else can, either. While he’s valuable, the question of just how valuable he’s going to be applies whether he’s at the plate or turning the double play.

Of course, if he hits, the whole “he’s great, but how great is he?” question is moot. And regardless of the answer, we’ll take the Yuniesky we’ve got. He’s a solid addition even if he doesn’t turn into Barry Larkin.


It is worth noting that projections of Betancourt, like PECOTA, require data that isn’t there. Given that the system really only had two years
of data (some crazy 2003 stats and then this year) I’m not surprised. Cuban stats are suspect, and I’m not sure how much I would trust them if
they were available.

So I agree, this is a case where we should lean a lot more towards the scouting side. This time next year we’ll have a whole new season of
Betancourt stats we can use to start forming more solid opinions, but for now, I agree that to be successful (without becoming another hitter)
Betancourt needs to keep making good contact, and his speed will get him hits from singles and doubles from gap singles.

I look forward to seeing Betancourt play next year. Hit or no hit, he’s an interesting and exciting player to watch, and we’ve had so much
boredom and uselessness these last few years.


Betancourt’s skill set lines up perfectly with his numbers, though. I know its only one year of data, but he was the same player at all three levels, and the conclusion drawn from the numbers and from watching him play are basically the same;

Gap hitter, line drive swing, terrific speed, awful plate discipline, lacks upper body strength to drive the ball. Yes, we only have one year of data, but his skillset doesn’t contradict anything we saw last year. He’s simply not going to hit 30 home runs in a season. He doesn’t have that kind of frame or swing. He’s a slash-and-dash hitter who will rely on his wheels, not his swings, to get himself around the bases.

Player types develop differently. Betancourt’s pretty far developed for his skillset. There’s not a lot of additional growth that he can make without totally reinventing his offensive approach. I like YuBet, too-heck, I argued that I wouldn’t trade him straight up for Miguel Tejada-but I don’t think he’s going to get a lot better than he already is.


That’s absolutely true, and I wouldn’t argue that Betancourt’s stats don’t match his skills. What I’d say is that when we look at something like a list of comps pulled by PECOTA, those comps don’t have the same value as a player we’ve seen for the full set of years.

For instance, do players like Betancourt develop some power? As they age, generally players become more patient and less contact-y… if Betancourt can’t get a little better in pitch selection, will that be the crucial factor in determining whether he can hit or not, and if so, how often does it break one way or the other?

From what we know, it’s unlikely that he’ll develop a significantly batting eye. Whether that can be exploited by major league pitchers and render him entirelly impotent is the interesting question.

Does that make sense?


If Betancourt develops into anything even close to Larkin, we should all jump for joy, as Larkin is one of the better shortstops ever to play the game. In any event, I’m not all that optimistic.

As for your pessimistic comps, call me crazy, but I’d take Juan Uribe. Terrific defender and some pop in his bat… 16 homers last year and 23 the year before that. This isn’t Rey Ordonez or Pokey Reese we’re talking about here. Even Orlando Cabrera, while now vastly overpaid, had a nice peak (2001, 2003-04) for a shortstop. Toss in Betancourt’s glove and that’s a very good player. Of course, both players have shown more power than you suggest Betancourt ever will. In the end, I don’t see Larkin or Uribe as very good comps, though Cabrera (career high HR: 17) is probably the best of the bunch.

I’m surprised we don’t hear more Omar Vizquel comparisons… they’re about the same size, play good defense, and don’t hit a lick. Omar hit .220/.273/.261 (no, not a typo) as a rookie, showing even less power than Betancourt has, before finally developing into an acceptable hitter later in his career.


I think thats why we don’t hear the Omar comparison all that often. At the same age, Betancourt is significantly better. Omar could barely get the ball out of the infild. Betancourt has legit gap power. He can smoke a fastball into the alley. He just won’t get any real lift on it, and that should keep his HR total down.

My favorite comparisons are Cristian Guzman, Pokey Reese, and Cesar Izturis. That’s what I think Betancourt can be. A terrific glove who, in his prime, hits .300, gets a bunch of triples, steals bases, is one of the better shortstops in baseball.

But, yea, the odds of him becoming Larkin are very, very long.

Position Roundtables: Starting Second Baseman

February 7, 2006 · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners · 30 Comments 

Starting Second Baseman: Jose Lopez


Since Dave has taken the initiative on the first few, I figured I’d start us off for number three, which is, fittingly, the second base roundtable.

Franz Kafka’s close friend Max Brod once asked the author whether, with his seemingly bleak literary worldview, he saw any cause for hope. The scribe gave a memorable reply: “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope–but not for us.”

The application to Mariner fandom should be apparent. There’s a difference, though. In our world, hope manifests itself in promising young players like this year’s projected starting second baseman, Jose Lopez. In Kafka’s world, the best you could expect was to turn into an insect.

What to expect from Lopez? More, in three senses. More than we expected from him last year, more than the team received from the second base slot, and more than many fans seem to believe. We’ve talked about this before, doing some player comparisons that demonstrate the different standards people get attached to.

To be sure, there are worries. Lopez doesn’t get on base enough. There are questions about his defense. But he’s a young middle infielder with pop in his bat, PECOTA likes him a lot, and he can be an inexpensive building block for years to come.

Plus, he doesn’t turn 23 until November. There may not have been hope for Franz Kafka. But there is for Jose Lopez, and by extension, the hometown nine.


Can you believe Jose Lopez just turned 22 years old? It feels like I’ve been writing about him for a decade. In trying to kick off this roundtable, I stared at my email for a day trying to figure out exactly what part of his game I haven’t written about in ridiculous depth.

The answer? His defense at second base. When he was coming through the ranks as a shortstop, I wrote several articles suggesting his skills were more suited for second base, and that I was never that impressed with his long term prospects of staying at shortstop. Most of the public comments I’ve made about his defense were negative in nature and regarded his ability to play major league defense at SS. But, since his converstion to second base, I haven’t really written much about his glovework. So, here you go.

Jose Lopez, right now, is a solid defensive second baseman, and he has the skills to be well above average going forward. His footwork is still not the best and he doesn’t have the best hands around, but his lateral range is significantly better than most of his peers at second base. He also has a cannon arm, which matters less than it would at short, but is still an asset, especially on balls hit up the middle.

Due to the small samples, we don’t have reliable statistical information on his defense, though if you’re curious, the advanced metrics rank him somewhere from average to third best in baseball. You can’t find a defensive metric that thinks he played poorly in ’05 at second base. Again, massive small sample size caveats apply, and I’d give those numbers very little weight in the grand scheme of things, but I’m just throwing it out there.

So, does all this matter? I mean, really, how important can second base defense be, anyways?

More important than you’d think. Bret Boone, in half a season, cost the Mariners about 20 runs with his glove last year. Seriously, this is one of those times where every defensive metric out there is in agreement. Boone was awful. Smith’s ZR had him at -18, RANGE had him at -24, Dial’s ZR had him at -33, PMR had him at -36. All of those are prorated to a full season, by the way. But at the rate Boone was letting balls roll past him, he would have cost the M’s something like 20-30 runs over the course of the year just with his defense.

If we accept that Jose Lopez is an average defender, the M’s are going to get a significant bump in how well they turn groundballs into outs next year. If PMR is right and Lopez is well above average, the M’s could have one of the best defensive infields in the game. It’s clear that, either way, replacing the statue of Bret Boone and replacing him with an actual live body is going to have a positive impact.

And that’s not even discussing the breakout potentail his bat has, which we’ve noted many times. Lopez, at his worst, will still be better than Boone was last year, and if he takes a leap forward like is clearly possible for a player for his age and skillset, it could be a massive improvement. Just like with the catcher spot, the M’s have serious upgrade potential here, and almost no chance to be as bad as they were. And, to top it off, Lopez will cost 3.5 percent of what Boone made last year.


Is this the year we finally get to see real production out of Jose Lopez? My Magic 8-Ball says, “Signs point to yes.” The thing I like best about Lopez are the combination of his age and that he has 854 at-bats–nearly two seasons’ worth–above AA. Now, I know what you’re saying… “But Jason, in 398 major league at-bats he’s hit a measly .239 with no walks and just seven homers.”

I can’t help you with the walks, unfortunately, and he might never draw even 50 in a single season in the majors. However, of his 95 major league hits, a full 39 of them — that’s 41% — have gone for extra bases. That’s power for the position, folks, especially given his age.

If the Magic 8-Ball could give more than yes or no answers, it’d tell you to look for a .280/.330/.450 from Lopez next season along with the solid defense Dave mentions above.


I don’t have anything particularly to add to this, except that I really like Lopez, and he’s got a fair shot at being a huge contributor to the team for a long time. I hope they plunk him down at second and work with him. Fortunately for him, it’s not as if there’s a replacement pushing him for playing time.


I do worry about Hargrove getting attached to “veteran leader and bat-control artist” Fernando Vina during spring training, leading to Lopez starting the year in Tacoma again.


That’s a legitimate concern. Lopez has a questionable work ethic, no doubt, and he has a tendancy to get on a coaches bad side fairly quickly. Grover’s the kind of coach who values hustle over talent, and since Jose hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in his major league trials, he can’t afford to dog it in spring training. Let’s hope he shows up motivated enough to keep Grover from going with another plucky white guy.

Position Roundtables: Starting First Baseman

February 2, 2006 · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners · 61 Comments 

Starting First Baseman: Richie Sexson


Richie Sexson in a nutshell:

He’s tall.
He’s a local boy.
He strikes out a lot.
He’s going to hit .270/.370/.530 unless his shoulder falls apart.

Seriously, there’s almost no variance in his year to year numbers. Even PECOTA picks up on this, basically pegging him for an exact repeat of his 2005 season despite being 31 years old, an age when projection systems start throwing red flags everywhere and forecasting doom and despair. After a full year of taking hacks, we can hope that his shoulder is again at full strength, and barring a relapse, there’s basically no reason to expect Sexson to decline dramatically. When healthy, he’s put up the same line over and over. And, considering that he’s good enough to overcome the Safeco Curse on Righties, that makes him a darn good player.

My concern, though, is that there’s literally no contingency plan. If Sexson gets hurt, the starting first baseman is… Raul Ibanez or Carl Everett, probably. And then you’re shifting things around defensively at two positions while replacing Sexson’s bat in the line-up with Matt Lawton’s. As much as we think Lawton was a nice value pickup, that’s a massive downgrade.

Sexson has to stay healthy and play 150 games. The M’s can’t contend without him. They don’t have any real options if he goes down. His health isn’t an option.


The most chilling three-word English phrases, in order:

1. “Let’s be friends.”
2. “That’s not mayonnaise.”
3. “If he’s healthy …”

The battery of tests and blue-ribbon panel of doctors gave Sexson’s shoulder a clean bill of health, and it didn’t fly out of it’s socket at all last year. This is a salve for some of my concerns.

For more salve, here’s a positive thought: Sexson had a fantastic year last year. But here’s a sobering counterpoint: he’s not likely to improve upon it — and if he’s injured or falls off, that’s a significant power gap in the team’s offense. As Dave says, the available alternatives are enough to make a man with mononucleosis go on a Nyquil bender.

Okay, Dave didn’t say that, but still. When the next-best solution is a brutal downgrade both at bat and in the field, signs point to trouble.

For the M’s, the best-case scenario is essentially Sexson repeating last year. For the worst-case scenario, well … let’s just say it ends with a Nyquil bender.


Sexson to Ibanez: a little more contact, less OBP, a ton less power
Sexson to Everett: even worse

I don’t actually think Lawton in the lineup more often is so bad. Lawton
likely to be just as good as Everett, though with his injury and last
year’s drug saga… but we’ll get to that. It’s Lawton in the lineup and
one of those dudes at first. That’s just ugliness. And both those guys
would be huge defensive downgrades. Sexson is the foundation of this

There is no other power threat in the lineup. After Sexson, we’re back
to a 2004 singles-only offense.You’re hoping for a rebound from Beltre,
or a development leap from Jose Lopez. Or, if you’ll pardon this plug,
the Return of the Return of Doyle.

This isn’t just about the team being able to score runs. If you’re a fan
of team balance, a team without power should rankle you. If you’re a fan
of exciting baseball, that Sexson is the only power hitter should scare
you. The singles-and-outs offense is amazingly boring. That’s great if
you want to fall asleep at the ballpark or watching the game at home,
but if you want to see this team winning, well… keep Sexson in your
thoughts and prayers.


I’m not sure I’d say Sexson repeating his ’05 is the best case scenario. His weighted mean PECOTA projection is basically a repeat of last year, so it sees that as a middle ground with potential for a better season. I think its unlikely that Sexson hits .300/.400/.600, but I would have said the same thing about Derrek Lee last year.

Just putting wild guesses into percentages, I’d say that Sexson has about a 50 percent chance to approximate last years performance, a 30 percent chance of declining with injury making up a big chunk of that, and a 20 percent chance of actually having a better year in ’06 than he did last year. The career year is the least likely of the three scenarios, but the possibility isn’t zero, I don’t think.


PECOTA thinks there’s a 15% chance his performance spikes up, a whopping
43% chance next year’s an improvement on this year. 43%. Wow.


Last year, in discussing the tallest Mariner, we seemed to focus on two possibilities: Sexson gets hurt early and only plays in a handful of games, or Sexson stays healthy all year. Fotunately for everyone, the latter was reality. Richie Sexson is the only hitter from last year’s team about whom I’d say “He had a good year” — he led the club in OPS by a ridiculous margin, and no, I don’t think Ichiro had a good year given what he’s done in the past.

Looking at his games played over the past six years, 2004’s “23” is clearly the abberation — throw that out, and he’s averaged 156 games played over five seasons. I’m not nearly as worried about his shoulder as I was this time a year ago, and given the power he displayed last season it seems unlikely we’re looking at another Shawn Green situation.

That said, the M’s certainly can’t afford to lose him for any significant stretch of time if they’re going to be respectable next season… unless you think spring training invitee Todd Sears can duplicate in the majors the .321/.394/.499 line he posted in the minors last year.

2006 Position Roundtables: Starting Catcher

January 29, 2006 · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners · 26 Comments 

Last year, we did a series of posts leading up to the start of the season where we covered each part of the roster in a string of emails, and then posted them here. Starting today, we’re launching this year’s crop, beginning behind the plate. The goal is to post two per week, likely on Mondays and Thursdays, up through opening day. These will give us a chance to cover each spot in enough detail to hopefully give you guys an idea of what we expect from the 2006 team.

So, without further ado, let’s kick off the roundtables.

Starting Catcher: Kenji Johjima


In 2005, the Mariners gave seven catchers a total of 563 plate appearances. As a group, they hit .215/.249/.311. In case you want some run context for that line, if the M’s team had matched that number, they’d have scored 2.46 runs per game. No other position in baseball, on any team, yielded the same kind of offensive futility for their organization as did the Mariner catcher. The seven men who wore the tools of ignorance for the M’s last year had all the offensive prowess of a triple-A reserve infielder. They combined to be worth 14.7 runs less than a replacement level major league catcher, which is essentially defined as the expected performance of a minor league veteran that a team could acquire for free. Had the M’s handed all 563 of those plate appearances to, say, Alberto Castillo, they’d have improved by 15 runs.

Needless to say, Kenji Johjima’s not exactly filling big shoes. He could decide to swing with one hand and still be an improvement over the disaster that was the Mariner Wheel-O-Catchers-2005. There’s a 0.0001 percent chance that the M’s don’t see a huge improvement in catcher offense in 2006, and that tiny decimile essentially accounts for the chance that Johjima is kidnipped by an angry Rene Rivera, and the M’s end up signing Derek to fill the gap while the rescue party searches the high seas. Barring that, expect the M’s 2006 catchers to run laps around the 2005 catchers.

So, we know we’ll be better. But how much better? What do we expect from Johjima in his first year in the states? All the translations of his Japanese numbers turn out very well. The different projection systems stick him anywhere from .250/.320/.400 to .270/.340/.480. It’s a pretty big gap of expected performance, and we certainly don’t have anything near the certainty with him that we do with other spots on the roster. While his numbers in Japan were terrific, there are some reasons to expect less in the states.

First off, Johjima will be 30 in June, and catchers don’t age particularly well. It’s not uncommon for backstops who were great in their twenties to fall apart offensively in their early thirties. It’s not the norm, but it happens frequently enough to not be ruled out. When added to the cultural adjustment, the move to Safeco Field as a right-handed batter, and the M’s emphasis on defense as the number one job of a catcher to the point of potentially stunting offensive development, there are legitimate reasons to expect a more significant decline than a straight numerical translation of his Japanese numbers might suggest.

Of course, there’s also a flip side. The scouts love him. His performances have been legitimately tremendous. He’s already in the U.S. working on his game, and he’s skipping the WBC to commit his time in spring trianing to learning the pitching staff and getting acclimated to Major League Baseball. Scouts are convinced he’s going to be a star here, and pretty much every statistical projection system has him hitting at a level that will make him one of the three or four best catchers in baseball in 2006.

When the scouts and the stats agree, there’s no good reason to be pessimistic. Johjima’s probably going to hit, and hit well, from the day he puts on a Mariner uniform. With the rest of the division running Jason Kendall, Jeff Mathis, and Rod Barajas out there as his competition, it will be an upset if the Mariners don’t have the best catcher in the division. If he hits .280/.350/.440, which is about where I have him pegged, he’ll be an easy choice for the all-star team.

And, keep in mind, even if you think he’s going to be a total bust, he’ll still be 15 to 20 runs better than what the M’s had last year.


I agree.

The concerns about his language and his ability to handle his pitching staff are overblown, the same kind of thing we heard when people were scraping for arguments for why Ichiro wasn’t a valid Rookie of the Year candidate. It’s somehow not a big deal for catchers to speak broken Spanish, or English, depending on their background, but if their first language is Japanese, well, that’s entirely different. I was particularly amused by the various crazy evaluations of his English, which ranged from “speaks none” on up. None? Really? Have you tried to talk to him?

From all accounts, Johjima’s invested much time and effort in improving his English and doing preparation work. And let’s be realistic, how much English does he really need to know?

Moyer: known to call his own pitches, preparation freak
Washburn: “Why do you make more than I do?”
Pineiro: “Be the good Joel, okay?”
Meche: “Man you are hooooooooooorrible tonight.”
Felix: what are you going to tell Felix? “Dial it down” maybe?


A friend of mine is the first person ever to play hacky-sack at the South Pole. It’s true.

She traveled via icebreaker down to Antarctica and, once there, discusses with her compatriots whether certain activities had ever been engaged in on the coldest continent. Here’s their chance at history, to be the first person to swing a golf club there, or do the hula hoop, or put an icy boot onto a hippie footbag.

My point is: people are fascinated with firsts. Though position players have come over from Japan with success, the fact that a catcher has never done so is going to cause much more of a kerfluffle than it should.

Is there reasonable justification for this? Kind of. It’s true that catcher is a unique position.

From where I sit, though, the trickiest part about Johjima’s transition to the majors is going to be teaching announcers along the Mariners radio network how to pronounce his name. Up here in Bellingham, I’ve already heard “Yojima,” “Jawjima” and “Hojima” — and it’s not even spring yet.

At least we got the pressing issue of the internal “h” cleared up long ago. Now, all Kenji has to do is treat Major League pitchers the way he did their counterparts in Asia, and we’re in business.


I agree that the concerns about his language are overblown, but I still think its a legitimate concern on a minor level. It’s not a big deal for a hispanic catcher to speak little english because every baseball team on earth has several other spanish speakers, and pretty much every infield in baseball has a spanish speaker who can come in and translate a mound conversation if need be. If Johjima spoke Spanish instead of Japanese, he could haul Beltre, Betancourt, or Lopez over and everyone would get along just fine. But Ichiro’s not jogging in from right field on trips to the mound, so Johjima has to learn more english than a hispanic catcher would.

In the end, it’s probably not a big deal, but I don’t think the straight comparison to spanish works.

Honestly, the thing that probably worries me most about Johjima is Safeco. It’s eaten some good hitters alive over the past few years. As much as I love Mike Cameron, it was painful watching him try to hit there. If Johjima rocks a few balls that are run down in the LF-CF gap, is he going to be able to overcome that and not let it get in his head?


This is a fair and sobering point about Safeco. It’s been a damper on many a right-handed hitter.

One other item on the language point that bears repeating: Johjima worked with English- and Spanish-speaking pitchers in Japan with, by all reports, no problem. I doubt this will be a bigger issue on this side of the Pacific.


It’s funny; a year ago we were doing these roundtables and Jeff and I in particular were quite upbeat about the M’s starting catcher — Miguel Olivo, a relative unknown. Now here we are, all of us excited at the prospect of Kenji Johjima, yet another unknown.

I’ll echo the comments made so far — there’s no way he doesn’t improve on the abysmal performance the M’s got out of their “catchers” last season. The language issue? Overblown. I won’t go so far as to make a projection, as there are tools for that sort of thing and my knowledge of Japanese baseball is slim-to-none (and getting narrower all the time, a friend of mine used to say).

As a veteran but not-yet-old catcher, Johjima’s the perfect way to bridge the gap until Clement is ready in two years. My one concern is not having JoeJessica around to back him up — there aren’t any good backup options in the system right now, meaning we could be in for 140 games of Johjima along with the classic catcher fade in August.

In any event, that’s a minor concern. Johjima gets my full endorsement as, by miles and miles, the best move the M’s made this winter.