The top prospect names that you hope are going to be taking the field for Seattle in a couple of weeks likely won’t be. Throughout the history of the Seattle Mariners there have actually been very few September call-ups that put that feeling into fans’ stomachs – that uncertain excitement that we sometimes get from seeing someone for the first time who we've only heard about. That feeling comes with hoping that what you’re about to see is something that could be meaningful. Something real.
That feeling was certainly there the first time that many of us saw Griffey. And Ichiro. And probably even A-Rod -- Wait, do we still claim to have ever liked him? No? Oh, okay. Never mind then. But Griffey and Ichiro both broke camp with the big club. And for those that want to include baseball's bad boy, Rodriguez's debut during his last days as an 18-year-old came in the form of a nearly month long audition that started in early July. Edgar was up and down for three years before sticking. Felix showed up a month too early, too.
Jeremy Reed came up at the end of '04 and had a nice little stretch, flirting with a .400 average for the month after hitting great in the PCL for a few months prior. But Seattle was coming off of nearly two decades of phenomenal center field talent and it was Jeremy Reed, so that felt a little, 'meh', too.
There was former No. 3 overall pick Roger Salkeld -- who debuted on my 18th birthday back in 1993 -- but the fanfare surrounding even the best prospects in the game at that time wasn't near what it has become since. Was there hope? Sure, but I certainly didn't have the feeling that Salkeld represented anything life-changing at that time.
But in 2007, just less than 27 months after Seattle tabbed him with another one of their 3rd overall picks –- this one from the 2005 draft -– Jeff Clement was promoted to the big leagues for the M's. As a catcher who needed work on his catching, we were told, it was nice that he made it up so quickly. He had certainly earned a shot, both with his pedigree as an All-American, Johnny Bench Award Winner and Golden Spikes Finalist at USC, and on the laurels which he built as a professional for Seattle's affiliates since that time. He'd hit well for a team that, yes, even back then, was looking for hitting. And he showed up with some high hopes riding on his broad shoulders.
Clement (and fellow 1st round heartbreak kid Brandon Morrow) had been thrown an NRI bone to big league camp that February, but he went just 1 for 9 with a couple of walks and was quickly reassigned to minor league camp. Shipped to Triple-A Tacoma to open the 2007 regular season, he hit a robust .275/.370/.497 with 20 home runs, 35 doubles and 61 walks (one of only two players in the PCL to reach those marks) in 125 games for the Rainiers and wrapped up his season in the PCL by hitting .333/.434/.552 (32 for 96) with 13 extra base hits in August, walking 17 times and striking out 18. He raked against left-handers (.315/.424/.669) and even threw out 20 attempted base stealers in his 74 games at catcher for the Tacoma. The M's were seriously lacking for left-handed power at the time and Clement looked like he had it to spare. He looked ready.
Clement was summoned to Seattle in September, but with the Mariners desperately hanging on in the American League West, just 6 1/2 games back of the Angels, and with Kenji Johjima sporting a .290/.322/454 slash at the time, he didn't play much early on. In fact, the left-handed hitting 24-year-old had just four pinch-hit appearances during his first 22 days on the big league roster. But he collected his first hit -– a ground-rule double to right-center field -– in Game 1 of a double-header against Cleveland on September 26th and then hit his first Major League home run -– also to right-center -– in game 2 of that double-dip. That was hit off of Cleveland closer Joe Borowski in the 9th inning and it tied the game at 2-2, a game Seattle won in walk-off fashion in the 10th.
Clement then started the next three games as Seattle's designated hitter, going 4 for 10 with another home run -– this one a walk-off blast hit off of Texas right-hander Mike Wood -– and three walks to wrap up that final homestand of 2007. It was a pretty good homestand for the Mariners as they won their final five games that year to close at 88 and 74. And it was a pretty good homestand for Jeff, excelling in front of the adoring home crowd, which numbered over 106,000 in those four games where he shined so bright. He did everything in that short stint that Mariners fans hoped he could do for the club long-term: He worked the count, hit for power, drew walks. He looked like a left-handed power answer. It certainly seemed to cement Clement as the future for the Mariners at the catcher position – or at least at DH.
But things didn't quite work out that way. The aging Johjima was questionably extended, Clement was sent back to Tacoma (where he dominated, incidentally), and the Mariners -- perhaps blinded by their win total from the year before -- seemed hesitant to hand a spot to the rookie. He was eventually called backup, but he was often over-matched and managed to hit just .227/.295/.360 in 66 games before being shut down with a knee injury. Shifted to first base briefly the following year, Clement was ultimately traded to Pittsburgh for nothing that ever proved of any use to Seattle.
He still hasn't been able to rekindle that spark he found late in 2007 for Seattle as he's walked to the plate in the big leagues just 178 times since and managed just a .220/.290/.396 slash in Triple-A for his third franchise this year. For a few faint moments, though, Jeff Clement gave fans in Seattle that feeling -– the feeling of hope, of promise, of magic –- back in 2007. Many thought it could be the start of something real. Something meaningful. Clement still made a statement as the Mariners' most memorable September call-up, but as so many stories in baseball go, the fairy tale ending just wasn't there.