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May 16, 2011

On the Beat

Wedge Issues

by John Perrotto

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Eric Wedge wasn't sure what to expect when it came time to look for work again after being fired by the Indians late in the 2009 season. After seven years as Cleveland's manager, a tenure that included winning the American League Manager of the Year award in 2007, Wedge still had one year remaining on his contract when he was jettisoned. So he took the summer off, spending last season watching baseball on television and hanging out with his young family at his home in suburban Cleveland.

"I hoped there would be teams interested in me," Wedge said. "I really had no idea, though."

Wedge wound up being inundated by suitors, including the Mariners, Orioles, Cubs, Blue Jays, and Pirates. He eventually was hired by the Mariners, who had also given strong consideration to Tigers hitting coach and former Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon and Royals bench coach and former Blue Jays manager John Gibbons.

"It was very gratifying and also humbling," Wedge said of the response. "It was a very interesting and informative process to be able to talk to so many general managers about their organizations and philosophies, and I really gained a lot from it. Of all the teams I talked to, though, I really felt Seattle was the best match. I liked their philosophies and the way they were going about things. It was very similar to what we did in Cleveland."

The Indians were at the beginning of a total rebuild in 2003, when Wedge took over after Charlie Manuel had been fired midway through the previous season. The Indians lost 94 games in Wedge's first year but were in position to win the AL Central just a year later before losing six of their final seven games of the season. In 1997, the Indians broke through, winning the division and coming within one game of going to the World Series before losing to the Red Sox in seven games in the American League Championship Series.

"The Mariners want to do things the same way we did with the Indians," Wedge said. "They want to do things the right way. They want to build a foundation and do it for the right reasons in order to build a winner."

The Mariners seem a long way off from being a winner, though. They are last in the AL West with a 16-23 record after going 61-101 last year, a season in which Don Wakamatsu was fired less than a year after being hailed for leading the Mariners to a surprising 85-77 finish in his managerial debut.

"Our record isn't what I'd like it to be, but I like the process we're going through," Wedge said. "We don't take losses sitting down, and we're playing better every day. I love the attitude of our guys. I love the way they compete, the way they are motivated. We're going to get better, and, in time, it will all come together for this organization."

One thing that seemingly works to the Mariners' advantage as they rebuild is a pitching staff that is fifth in the American League in runs allowed with an average of 4.23 a game. They already have an established young ace in 25-year-old Felix Hernandez, who won the AL Cy Young Award last season, and a burgeoning ace in 22-year-old rookie Michael Pineda. Hernandez leads the staff with a .554 Support Neutral Winning Percentage, though Pineda's .484 shows he is still inconsistent despite flashes of brilliance.

The Mariners drew raves for their surprise turnaround in 2009, when they improved by 24 wins from a 101-loss disaster the season before. Much of the improvement was the result of improved defense, but the Mariners' fielding has since deteriorated. Their .699 Defensive Efficiency this season is the worst in the AL and second-to-last in the majors behind the Astros.

The offense isn't much better, as the Mariners are 12th in the AL in runs scored with an average of 3.54 a game. At least it's an improvement over last season, when the Mariners scored only 3.17 runs a game, the lowest in the major leagues since the advent of the designated hitter rule in 1973.

Wedge had planned to slowly work some of the Mariners' younger players into key spots in the lineup. However, the Mariners sped up that process in recent weeks. They moved 24-year-old first baseman Justin Smoak, who has a team-best .344 True Average, to the No. 3 spot in the batting order. They also called up left fielder Carlos Peguero from Triple-A Tacoma, installing him as the No. 6 hitter—behind catcher Miguel Olivo (.211), who has been the worst cleanup hitter in the major leagues this season, and designated hitter Jack Cust (.271).

"We've got guys at the top of the order that have proven for a long time in the major leagues that they can get on base," Smoak said, referring to right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (.280) and third baseman Chone Figgins (.242). "Our job in the middle of the order is to drive them in. We haven't been doing that as often as we need to, and it's been a little bit frustrating at times. We need to start driving them in."

The dropoff is severe in the bottom third of the order, with second baseman Jack Wilson (.265), center fielder Michael Saunders (.192), and shortstop Brendan Ryan (.208) bringing up the rear. This should be partly remedied next week, when center fielder Franklin Gutierrez is expected to be activated from the disabled list after missing the first month and a half of the season with irritable bowel syndrome. Second baseman Dustin Ackley, a five-star prospect according to Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein, is currently at Triple-A Tacoma and should provide an additional boost to the offense at some point this season. However, two four-star hitting prospects are a long way off: shortstop Nick Franklin is playing for High-A High Desert and outfielder Guillermo Pimentel is in extended spring training.

Wedge isn't ready to put a timetable on how long it will take for a franchise that has not been to the postseason since 2001 to get back on its feet. He is, though, confident that it can be done.

"The one thing I do know is we have a plan to make this franchise successful," Wedge said. "Sometimes, it takes time. Other times, it happens faster. You never know what's going to happen in baseball, but the one thing I do know is we're taking steps forward and will continue to do so."

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Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees' troubles go beyond the Jorge Posada controversy. As one front office type said: "They look tired, slow, and mainly disinterested." … In addition to shortstop Jose Reyes and right fielder Carlos Beltran, the Mets also plan to make third baseman David Wright available at the trading deadline. … One baseball man who knows both Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols got a huge chuckle about the furor that the duo's man hug created last week: "It has absolutely nothing to do with trying for some kind of advantage in free agency. Jim Hendry has never met a stranger, and he and Albert have had a friendly relationship for years. File this under 'no big deal.'" … Don't look for the Angels to trade for a first baseman now that Kendry Morales is out for the season, as their confidence is increasing in rookie Mark Trumbo. … The Athletics have worries about how Gio Gonzalez will pitch without fellow left-hander Dallas Braden, who will have shoulder surgery Monday, around to serve as his counselor and overall pitching guru. … The Rockies are considering shaking up their bullpen by calling up left-hander Rex Brothers and right-hander Matt Daley from Triple-A Colorado Springs and sending down lefty Franklin Morales and righty Felipe Paulino.

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Scouts' views:

Mets right fielder Carlos Beltran: "You can tell his knees are better because he's got a better base underneath him and he's driving the ball to all fields. He's not a good outfielder anymore, but he's going to be a good chip for the Mets at the deadline, and if I were an American League team that needed a DH, I'd make a play for him."

Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez: "Hitters aren't just squaring balls up against him better than in years past, but they're fouling off more pitches. They are really running his pitch count up, and they're frustrating him because he just can't put guys away."

Rays first baseman Casey Kotchman: "I had totally given up on this guy, but he's back to spraying line drives like he used to. He's not the prototypical power-hitting first baseman, but if he's hitting .300 and driving some balls in the gap, he's valuable because he's a plus defensive player."

Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez: "His swing has been really long all season, and he just can't get into sync. He shows flashes of being the old Hanley, but I can't believe he's been this bad for this long. I know he's going to break out at some point, but it's hard to watch him right now."

Giants outfielder Nate Schierholtz: "I've always wondered what he could do if he got the chance to play every day. He can swing the bat a little bit, and he's got some pop. I've always been surprised that a rebuilding team never tried to trade for this guy and see if he could be a regular."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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