Positional Battles: Smoke Clearing

The battle for the final few roster spots are heating up and the smoke is beginning to clear. But are the emerging silhouettes the shadows of the <i>right</i> players earning the job?



As the Mariners settle into the final 10 games of spring schedule, the positional wars being fought within camp are beginning to take shape - at least somewhat.

With Pokey Reese back in Peoria after a recent personal trip to the east coast, the shortstop position has a full compliment of candidates – and Jose Lopez is giving Reese more than the Mariners bargained for this spring.

On the mound, the bullpen battles continue between Matt Thornton and George Sherrill for the role as the second lefty.

Right-handers Aaron Sele and Ryan Franklin have emerged as the clear frontrunners for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation, staving off light challenges from Cha Seung Baek, Jorge Campillo and Felix Hernandez.:

The bench, however, isn't as clear as it should be. With hurdles such as money, loyalty, gutlessness, and maybe most of all, stupidity, the Mariners bench may go virtually unchanged from the end of the 2004 season.

As Scott Spiezio tries to return to the form that got him a three-year $9.05 million contract from the Mariners, Greg Dobbs is crawling out of his offensive shell and is exploding with the bat.

The utility roles, in both the infield and outfield, have built quite the competition between incumbent Willie Bloomquist, Rickey Gutierrez, Jamal Strong, and even Dobbs.


The Bench

With Spiezio and Wilson virtual locks to make the club, that leaves two open roster spots to ride the pine and serve as the backup middle infielder and fourth outfielder.

Bloomquist seems like the third automatic to make the 25-man, after a decent showing at five positions this spring, and being named as the club's emergency catcher.

Ricky Gutierrez and Benji Gil are probably just along for the ride at this point in the spring, since Bloomquist and Spiezio can jointly play every defensive position on the diamond, leaving both Gutierrez and Gil as unnecessary fodder – not to mention that Gil hasn't played well at any position defensively and Gutierrez has been less than stellar all spring.

The last available slot is likely the fourth outfield position. Or is it?

If the Mariners believe Bloomquist can adequately play all three outfield positions, on top of three infield positions, why is Spiezio or outfield prospect Jamal Strong, the leading candidate for the fourth outfield job, a necessary piece to the final opening day roster?

The problem here is money, which isn't something new to fans in Seattle. Spiezio is guaranteed more than $6 million over the next two seasons and as well as Greg Dobbs is hitting the baseball this spring – it is just spring.

But, if Spiezio were to be traded, Dobbs could assume the role the M's are currently seeing for Spiezio, as the backup first and third baseman, as well as some spot duty in left field – not that the M's need a third left fielder. (See Winn, Randy and Ibanez, Raul)

That would again, in the new Spiezio-less scenario, leave one open spot to be filled.

While the obvious choice is Strong, the value he holds is diminished, defensively. The need for two backup center fielders isn't ever going to be there. Randy Winn is a more than capable center fielder – as a backup and a second option. If Strong is to make the club, he'll have to convince manager Mike Hargrove that he will hit enough off the bench and in spot duty.

The right thing to do for the 2005 version of the Hometown Nine, would be to release Bloomquist, use Pokey Reese as the backup middle infielder and bring Strong north on April 4 to join Spiezio and Wilson on the bench.

Yeah, that would mean that the club's starting shortstop on opening day versus the Minnesota Twins would be none other than Jose Lopez. The kid who three months ago wasn't ready to hit at the big-league level, and seemingly was sliding out of the Mariners' future at shortstop and being touted as a possible replacement for Bret Boone at second base in 2006.

Clearly, Lopez would benefit from at least a half season in Triple-A Tacoma, and might need the full year to ripen his skills to prepare for a breakthrough next spring.

But, Pokey Reese has done less-than-nothing to prove he is the better choice at shortstop for the M's this season. The 31-year-old hasn't been 100% healthy, which is something the club knew of his history prior to his signing. And without consistent starts due to a personal sabbatical, and the play of Lopez, Reese has yet to show any consistency at the plate, while lacking rhythm in the field.

Ultimately, what is best for the 2005 Mariners may not be best for the team in the long run and, overall, the right thing to do is start the season with Reese hitting ninth and playing shortstop behind a suspect pitching staff.

Not because Reese is so good defensively that he can carry a sub-.200 batting average and not be a detriment to the team's win-loss record. But because Lopez truly does need more time in Tacoma and the eye of the franchise is heavily shifted into the protective mode.

Rushing the 21-year-old can only hinder the final stages of his development, primarily offensively. Furthermore, Reese is an awfully expensive all-field, no-hit benchie to carry. At least when McLemore signed his contract for $3 million a year to be a utility man, he was hitting, fielding, stealing bases, leading the troops and serving as a great teammate.

But the M's must bite the bullet on this one, at least for the better part of the 2005 season.

Speaking of biting, Spiezio's time in Seattle should be over. It's time to cut the cord and eat some green chunks and send him packing.

While he could be useful, both as a left-handed bat off the bench (I refuse to acknowledge Biting the Bloomquist bullet is the most overdue roster move since the addition of a true leadoff hitter or a quality everyday left fielder to play next to Ken Griffey, Jr.

Bloomquist is a career .264 hitter, which doesn't sound so bad until his secondary numbers are thrown into the equation. The 27-year-old possesses a meek .345 slugging percentage to back up his three career home runs and 89-34 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

Bloomquist has not hit above .270 in even a medium sample size since his second season of pro ball in 2000 with Advanced-A Lancaster.

Fact is, Bloomquist is not a good major league hitter. He isn't even what you'd call average, or better yet, servicable.

Offensively, the Bremerton native is true fodder.

Which brings me to Benji Gil.

Okay, ‘nuff said.

Championship clubs don't employ more than one all-field no-hit types on their bench, with the exception of the backup catcher. Carrying Wilson, Spiezio and Bloomquist on the same bench, just because one makes a lot of money and the other can play decent to solid defense at six positions, is not how a 99-loss club turns things around.

Time to see some new blood. Strong deserves a chance. Dobbs can't be much worse than Spiezio, and I bet he'd agree to do it for a lot less money. Justin Leone, optioned to Triple-A last week, is probably the best option and brings the most to an offensively challenged bench, but it seems unlikely that the club will reach that far down their depth chart to start the season.

Whichever direction the Mariners head in the personnel department, it is clear that the path they will take, and the path they should take, are polar opposites.

The team needs balance. The everyday lineup is solidly built with power, on-base talent, defensive wizards and speed.

The bench has none of the above.

Biting the not-so-proverbial bullet is the only road to follow.

Whether the front office has the wherewithal to hang that left at "NoMoreSpiezio Road" and "BloomquistisFodder Avenue," remains to be seen.

If the organization can't build a proper bench, how can anyone expect them to build a championship caliber pitching staff?



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