Wednesday, March 03, 2004

"Glass Half Full" Preview - FIRST BASE 

The Glass Half Full Previews takes a position-by-position look at the Seattle Mariners. Each installment will review 2003, discuss the offseason tinkerings of the front office, preview the 2004 season and give a peek at what may come in 2005 and beyond. Spring Training Updates are at bottom - last updated: 3/8

First base in Seattle for the past three years has meant one player, the man in the batting helmet, John Olerud. But the Olerud era is most likely entering its final year and with the way Mariner fans bemoaned the loss of Greg Colbrunn, one might think that the time for transition is NOW. So lets fill up our glasses, and take a dip into the Mariners FIRST BASE position.

What Did We See in 2003:
First base in Seattle was manned for the fourth straight year by the Quiet Man, John Olerud. Olerud signed a 2 year, $15.4M deal coming into the season. The Mariners then signed Greg Colbrunn to a 2 year, $3.6M deal with the intention of using him as a platoon partner for Olerud and as the future DH after what was thought to be Edgar's final year. Mariners vice president Lee Pelekoudas called Colbrunn "our No. 1 priority after we got past signing our own free agents." So how did it turn out? Not so good...

Player             G  AB  R   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS 

John Olerud 152 538 64 145 35 0 10 83 83 67 0 1 .270 .371 .390 .762
Greg Colbrunn(1B) 14 45 5 13 1 1 2 6 1 12 0 1 .289 .304 .489 .793
Greg Colbrunn 22 58 7 16 1 1 3 7 4 16 0 1 .276 .323 .483 .805
John Mabry(1B) 9 20 1 2 1 0 0 1 1 3 0 0 .100 .143 .150 .293
John Mabry 64 104 12 22 6 0 3 16 15 21 0 0 .212 .328 .356 .684
TOTAL 162 604 70 160 37 1 12 90 85 83 0 2 .265 .361 .389 .750
It finally happened - John Olerud had an off year. And Greg Colbrunn, the man who was brought in to spell him, was out for most of the year with wrist and neck injuries after providing limited production. So the offensive production from first base was a disappointment. The good news from 2003 is that Olerud remains one of the best defensive first basemen in the majors, and was rewarded with his third Gold Glove.

Some fear that Olerud is entering decline phase of his career that sees his numbers begin to plummet like we have recently seen with 36 year old Roberto Alomar. Comparing his numbers over the past three years, could give credence to that idea.


2001 572 91 173 32 1 21 95 94 70 .302 .401 .472 .873
2002 553 85 166 39 0 22 102 98 66 .300 .403 .490 .893
2003 539 64 145 35 0 10 83 84 67 .269 .372 .390 .762
It essentially looks like Johnny turned 12 home runs into outs. Could this be the beginning of the end as the 35-year-old Olerud sees his power decline dramatically? It could be, but lets first consider that John strained his right hamstring on June 29. Maybe he played through the pain, but the effects showed up in his statistics? Lets look at John's statistics pre-injury and post-injury.


1st 268 33 77 19 0 4 39 42 27 .287 .384 .403 .787
2nd 271 31 68 16 0 6 44 42 40 .251 .351 .376 .727
So his numbers did slip a bit from the hamstring injury, but probably not enough to soothe your thoughts. His first half average was still relatively light in power. In fact, his first half is very comparable to his good-not-great 2000 inaugural Mariner campaign when he put up 285/394/439/833 numbers.

I dug through my stats book and found several cases of 35-year-old decline similar to that of John Olerud. Craig Biggio was 35 in 2000 and saw his numbers drop from 294/380/457-837 to 268/370/393-763, only to rebound the following year to 292/360/455-815. Similarly, Vinny Castilla saw his age 34-36 numbers fluctuate from 260/305/467-772 down to 232/262/348-610 and back up to 277/310/461-771. So, this may very well be a brief dip, but we should not discount the possibility that the power Olerud displayed in 2001 and 2002 may never return.

Meanwhile, power outage or no, another weakness of Olerud's is his performance against lefties and 2003 was no exception.

Season/Split     AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS

2003 vs Left 155 11 37 11 0 0 23 15 30 .239 .318 .310 .628
2003 vs Right 384 53 108 24 0 10 60 69 37 .281 .392 .422 .814
And that problem has persisted his entire career as reflected in these 3-year splits
Season/Split     AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS

3yr vs Left 461 44 119 29 0 6 79 60 66 .258 .347 .360 .707
3yr vs Right 1203 196 365 77 1 47 201 216 137 .303 .409 .486 .895

Hot Stove Action:
There was no question that John Olerud was going to comeback in 2004, and that he would be counted on to rebound from his down 2003. John Mabry had a $1.5M option for 2004 with a $250,000 buyout. Unsurprisingly, the Mariners decided that 104 at bats of 684 OPS was not worth the million dollars. But the stunning move occurred when the Mariners traded Greg Colbrunn for Quinton McCracken and eliminated their ability to field a great hitter while resting Olerud against tough lefty pitching.

Over the past three years, Colbrunn had put up a pretty 317/366/603 split against lefties. Thats a pretty 969 OPS against lefties. Which is exactly why we acquired him for the 2002 season. Oh well, he's gone and that's that.

Going into the offseason, lefty-bashing bench help who could play 1B or LF were not a big priority. Because of this, the best choice for this role, Eduardo Perez, was allowed to take his HUGE 1075 OPS against lefties to Tampa Bay for 2 years and a meager $1.7 million. Perez was signed before the M's traded Colbrunn.

Later in the offseason, after the M's had filled their top priorities, and traded Colbrunn, they realized that a lefty-basher was desired for the bench. The M's made a run at Ellis Burks and his 948 OPS vs lefties, offering him $1.5M to be the big bat on the bench, but he accepted a smaller offer to return to the Red Sox. Injuries have limited Burks to DHing recently, so its unknown whether he could have been the solution as a replacement in 1B or left field.

One player who was available and might have made good sense for the Mariners to sign is Eric Karros, who has a 904 OPS vs lefties the past three years, and played in a platoon role for the Cubs last year before taking over the job outright. But Billy Beane saw the same thing, and signed Karros to a one-year, $1 - 1.5M contract to platoon at 1B for A's. So we will hope that Rob Neyer is correct when he writes that here, platoon splits may cause teams like the A's to rate Karros to high.

The Mariners say that they are done with free agent options. Andres Galarraga and his 851 OPS vs lefties might have been a good fit, but it would seem he needs to focus on his health instead of baseball.

So what other offseason moves might eventually find their way to first base? GM Bill Bavasi has mentioned newcomers Raul Ibanez and Scott Spiezio as both being able to fill in for Olerud, but neither are lefty-bashers. Spiezio at least puts up a reasonable 763 OPS vs lefties the last three years, but moving him to first opens a void at 3B. Willie Bloomquist sports a 740 OPS against lefties, so that is the logical choice, moving Spiezio to 1B.

No one on our currently projected bench hits lefties well. That list includes Dave Hansen who plays both 1B and 3B, but has been primarily used as a pinch hitter for 8 years. And look, the lefty Hansen has hit lefties to the tune of an 825 OPS over the past three years. Unfortunately, that is in 25 ABs. So finding a lefty-basher who can play 1B may be a continuing theme well into the season.

What's In Store for 2004:
The key question here is obviously whether John Olerud will rebound from his down 2003, or if that was the first step in a long plunge toward ineffectiveness.

Baseball Prospectus, has a method of projecting players based on historical data that they call PECOTA, and it projects the most the range of Olerud's 2004 to be between 242/344/355-699 and 319/420/513-933 with the most likely outcome a 277/379/427-806 line. Expert forecaster Ron Shandler at BaseballHQ predicts a 293/394/438-832 line for John.

A recent David Andriesen article quotes Paul Molitor feeling confident that only a few minor problems need to be addressed.

"The thing I noticed in his tape (from) last year is that he got a little bit rushed. Sometimes it looked like his setup was a little bit late and he'd come off that back side a little too quickly and lose some of his weight shift before he recognized what the pitch was. So he had trouble getting that ball out of the inside part of the plate.

"John's swing is still exceptional. We can show him some things that began to vary last year from what he'd done in the past. They're very subtle, very small, but enough to make a difference over the course of an entire season."
And when Olerud's not in there? Look for Bloomquist and Hansen to be the most likely candidates to spell Olerud against lefties early in the season, with mixed success. How they do in that role, may determine whether we see a minor league callup or trade.

Of our minor leaguers in camp, free agent minor league acquisition Bucky Jacobsen (952 OPS in AA) provides the most likely source of power against lefties, so expect him to get a long close look in Spring, and if he doesn't make the team, may be a midseason callup. The fact that Justin Leone is a righty may be another edge he has over Greg Dobbs for a bench role with the M's, but Dobbs might have the edge to be called up if Olerud were to be hurt. Either Dobbs or Leone could take the hot corner and move Spiezio over to 1B.

An inseason trade is also a realistic possibility. One player the M's could target would be Pirates C/1B/LF Craig Wilson who belts lefties to a sweet 1009 OPS. The Pirates currently have him in a part time role and could certainly use our pitching prospects. He could platoon with either Olerud or Ibanez in LF, and even act as a backup catcher if we were to trade Dan Wilson to that notorious collector of ex-Mariners, Lou Pinella. Other possibilities would include any of the potential free agents that I will discuss below.

If Olerud were to be injured for any length of time, I believe that one of the minor leaguers would initially be called up to take a full-time role and that the M's would explore trade options for some of the future free agents with more earnest.

Further Down the Road (2005 and beyond):
"I'm looking at this as my last contract, but as I say, you never know what will happen. In two years, things might change."
-- John Olerud, after signing a two-year, $15.4 million contract in December,2002
Until recently, it was assumed that John Olerud would retire after this season. But on February 27, in the Andriessen interview referenced above, John indicated that he plans on playing somewhere in 2005, and I'm sure he'd like to stay with the Mariners. Whether he will be back as a Mariner and whether he will expect to have a full-time role will depend on his performance this year. I would envision an incentive-laden one-year contract along the lines that Edgar has, but who knows what he might get on the open market.

If he is not back in a full-time role, then the flexibility the Mariners inherited by signing Scott Spiezio at 3B means that either a first baseman or a third baseman could replace Olerud in the lineup.

Here's a look at the most likely alternatives to a John Olerud return in 2005:

1) Free Agent third baseman with Scott Spiezio moving to 1B. I think this is the most likely place that Olerud's replacement would come from, as it could improve both the offense and the defense. Also, there are quite a few talented free agent third-baggers available which could make it a buyer's market. Eric Chavez or Troy Glaus would provide a big power bat, or Corey Koskie or Bill Mueller could hit for average. A gamble could be made that Aramis Ramirez or Adrian Beltre are ready to live up to their hype. Another interesting gamble would be to sign Aaron Boone to a 2-year deal THIS year, in hopes of getting his bat down the stretch, and moving him into 3B to start 2005.

2) Minor league 3B. Whether it will be Greg Dobbs or Justin Leone, I don't know, but one of these guys is gonna have a big year and force himself into the Mariner plans either this year or next year. Dobbs obviously will have some catching up to do after his lost 2003, but he cold step it up in San Antonio this year and jump back past the amazing Leone. Hunter Brown is near and dear to my heart as a Rice alumni, but he's looking at repeating Inland Empire at age 23, so he's a ways away. And non-prospect Matt Boone provides the M's with Boone depth, if nothing else.

3) Free Agent 1B Studs. This is the dream of many M's fans. Either Carlos Delgado or Richie Sexson would provide a big power improvement at first base. Sexson is a much more likely fit because he should be more affordable, and because the Diamondbacks will be less likely to try to keep Sexson than the Blue Jays with superstud Delgado.

4) Minor league 1B. If Bucky Jacobsen or A.J. Zapp hit well enough, they may earn a bench role, but it is unliikely that the M's would hand a full-time job to them, unless injuries forced it.

Glass Half Full Projection:
With Paul Molitor having Olerud's back, I'll be even more optimistic than BP and Shandler and look for John to crack a .300 batting average and a .400 OBP as he did in 2001-2 and go 300/400/450-850. I predict that the M's will bring up Justin Leone and Bucky Jacobsen at different times to be a bench bat used to spell Olerud.

With the Mariners winning the World Series, Olerud decides to join Edgar in retirement, and the Mariners sign Richie Sexson to a 4-year, $46M contract.

Other Links of Note:
Steve's Mariner Wheelhouse previews the Mariners infield and provides this assessment of first base:
In 2004 offensive performance at first base is likely to improve, whereas defensively there will be some decline.
Spring Training Updates:
3/4:Greg Colbrunn still not 100%. According to Arizona Republic, Colbrunn's wrist is not back to 100% but he still hopes it will be by Opening Day. ''It's coming back and it's something I'm going to have to deal with," he said, ''but my main goal is Opening Day. It's not feeling 100 percent right now, but it'll get there by the start of the season." The risk here may be a big reason why the M's were willing to deal Greg.
3/8:Dave Hansen comfortable in a pinch. Yes, but he is also not a great runner and squelched a Mariners rally by getting thrown out at home easily in the ninth inning of the Mariners 5-3 loss to the Angels. The Times has a Meet the Mariner piece on Hansen as well.

Next up: Second Base

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