Rumor Royalty: Geoff Baker (Mariners)

Geoff Baker kindly answered our Rumor Royalty questions despite vacationing in Hawaii.  Geoff covers the Mariners beat for the Seattle Times.  He also keeps a blog here.

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MLBTR: How do you see the first base situation turning out? Richie Sexson is entering a contract year and his production has been below average. Do you think anyone else in the system could see time at the cold corner?

Baker: If Sexson struggles out of the chute again, then fails to rebound by mid-May, I could see a chain reaction of moves that could lead to someone like Raul Ibanez or Jose Vidro being moved over to first base. A lot will depend on the progress of Jeff Clement. If Clement shows he’s ready for a big-league job, it gives the Mariners plenty of flexibility where Sexson is concerned. Clement himself could be moved over to play first base. The reason I said Ibanez or Vidro first is because they’ve both played first base in the majors already. I could see Clement taking over as DH if Vidro were to be moved to first base. Or, if Vidro struggled as well, him and Clement seeing time as DH. The point is, the M’s have no excuse to spend an entire season waiting for Sexson this year. Once Clement and outfielder Wladimir Balentien show they’re ready for the bigs (and a couple of months at Class AAA could be all it takes) there are plenty of moves that could be made to bring in a new first baseman.

All that said, I do expect Sexson to rebound to something more reflective of his career norms. He’s in a contract year, and last season sort of snowballed away from him quickly. The combination of nagging hurts, getting booed by his own fans and the pressure he put on himself after a terrible start all conspired to drag him down. Not saying he’ll hit 30 home runs again, but an .800 OPS is the minimum I expect.

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MLBTR: Do you think the Mariners are giving any consideration to signing Barry Bonds, despite Jose Vidro‘s presence as the DH?

Baker: I’d be very surprised. The Mariners have made a point of not hanging on to players with black marks against them in the community. We saw that last year when Julio Mateo was traded to Philadelphia at a time when an assault charge (for beating his wife) was pending against him. Bonds is also charged with a crime — perjury. He may not have been found guilty yet (and the M’s have given chances to folks caught using steroids, like Mike Morse) but the team won’t want that cloud and the distraction that is Bonds himself hanging over their clubhouse and season. He’s a perfect match for this team. If they wanted Bonds, he’d already be signed.

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MLBTR: Can you tell us which Mariners with less than five years of service time are out of options?

Baker: Mike Morse, who can play the infield or outfield, is the biggest name and will likely not get through waivers if he fails to make the team out of spring training. I’d say Morse has a great shot at joining the club. He’s already hitting well this spring, offers them plenty of versatility and I’m not sure the M’s feel Wladimir Balentien is ready to leave Class AAA just yet. If Morse doesn’t stick in Seattle, some other club will likely use him in the big leagues.

Cha Seung Baek is also out of options. A right handed pitcher, he’s had his share of appearances with the club the past two years, but, for some reason, hasn’t made a lasting impression. Seemed like a surefire option as a fifth starter heading into last spring, but the M’s opted to sign Jeff Weaver instead. That tells you plenty. There sould be a question about Baek’s durability and willingness to take the ball. The rotation is set for this year, so he’s either a long reliever or likely gone. My guess is he’s gone.

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MLBTR: Do you expect both Kenji Johjima and Jeff Clement to be Mariners in 2009?

Baker: I do expect Clement to be there, mainly because Sexson, Ibanez and Vidro could all be gone. That’s a lot of power to lose without replacing some of it from within. That said, I’d expect to see Clement in a first base or DH role more than as a starting catcher. Unless he makes tremendous strides in catching this season at Class AAA.

And if that’s the case, I would expect Johjima to return. The Mariners are pleased with the progress he’s made in transitioning from the Japanese to the American game. He offers pretty good offensive power for a catcher. At this point, not knowing how he’ll do this season, I think the team is leaning towards keeping him. Not like there’s anyone else in the system ready to step in and play every day. That could change over the next seven months, but right now, there isn’t. If Rob Johnson, or Clement, was going to be Johjima’s backup this season, I’d feel differently. But it’s going to be Jamie Burke.

That said, if Clement has an absolute monster year as a Class AAA catcher, or half a monster season down there and then fills in as a major leaguer at any spot the rest of the way, we’ll talk. But for right now, the way I see it, Clement won’t be catching for the M’s in the big leagues. That means Johjima stays put.


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