The sixth in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the left-hand sidebar, below the Rotoworld stuff and the interviews.)
LL/USSM Community: 572 AB's, .280/.350/.464 (n=136)
Actual Line: 573 AB's, .291/.351/.480
Closest Projection: darrylzero, .285/.351/.478
If a projection is basically right on, but the player achieves those numbers in an unexpected fashion, is it really correct?
Raul Ibanez and the saga in left field was far and away the most popular storyline of the season. Many people were perfectly content to begin the year with Raul in left and Adam Jones honing his game in AAA, but when Raul struggled out of the gate and AJ proved he was too good for PCL pitching, the tide of public opinion began to turn the other way. Things reached a fever pitch in July, at which point Jones was Biblically laying with the minor leagues while Raul batted .184 with zero power for the month. Clearly, we said, there needs to be a change. Raul, we said, appears finished, and AJ would provide an instant, substantial upgrade. To refuse to make such an obvious move, we said, was to sacrifice a critical game or two in the standings down the stretch.
I guess Raul Ibanez took offense to all this, or something.
Raul through August 5th: .253/.310/.387, 6 homers
Raul after August 5th: .363/.425/.652, 15 homers
Among players with at least 50 plate appearances in each month, Raul had the tenth-best OPS in the league in August and the 40th-best in September (that's out of 291). For a few spurts in there he was carrying this offense, and even managed to be one of the few members of the lineup who actually hit a little bit during that morale-crushing slump. For all the talk about experience and veterans and rookies and chemistry and defense, Raul rendered everything moot by completely flipping out for the final eight weeks. Not that the arguments for AJ were bad ones, mind you - I should know, I made a lot of them - but in this particular case, they didn't matter in the end. Jones didn't have a prayer of matching Raul's production.
With this in mind, if there's one thing the Mariners should've learned from their Raul and Richie experiences this season, it's that, if a player is hurt, it does you no good to let him try and play through it. It came out later in the summer that Raul, for a while, had been dealing with a shoulder issue that first bit him while checking a swing in ST. This shoulder problem caused him discomfort and forced him to alter his mechanics, thus sapping him of a lot of his power and making him pretty useless. The organization was aware of this. He also then ran into a hamstring deal that further delayed his return to being a productive hitter. How much these complications actually hindered him, we'll never be sure, but if the Mariners are quick to explain away Raul's struggles by pointing to his injuries, then they should've also been quick to put him on the DL and let him heal up so he could get back to 100%. Letting a player work through an injury, let alone praising him for his determination in doing so, is one of the stupidest parts of the game. It. Doesn't. Help. Anyone.
Anyway, the tremendous push down the stretch helped Raul put up a set of final numbers that looks remarkably similar to the ones that he's been posting for the better part of the past decade. He may have taken an unorthodox path to his .831 OPS, but he got there, once again showing us where to shove our warnings concerning his age. I can keep reminding you that Raul is 35 and not getting any younger, but after what he just did, I don't really have any more reason to tell you that he's about to drop off the map than I did in 2004, or in 2005, or in 2006, or in 2007. It's weird; when he finally does succumb, I don't think any of us will be particularly surprised, but it'll still be unexpected, if that makes any sense. Such is the burden of following players reluctant to acknowledge their birth dates.
For all the talk about Ibanez's resurgent offense, though, he did start to show his age in another area. Defense. Yeah. I feel like I don't even need to write this part of the post since we've been complaining about it for months, but holy crap is Raul Ibanez ever bad in left field. His THT zone rating ranked third-worst in baseball, even coming in behind Adam flipping Dunn, and UZR agreed, putting his -30 runs (-30 runs!) ahead of only Manny Ramirez's -33 and Pat Burrell's -34. This isn't one of those things where the numbers differ from visual observation, either - any idiot who watched a Mariner game last summer could tell that way more balls were dropping in left field than usual. Watching Raul Ibanez play the field is so painfully unfunny that it's almost funny, and how Jarrod Washburn hasn't yet chopped him up and fed him to birds remains a mystery to me.
If you can believe it, Raul's defense was arguably bad enough to leave him as little more than a replacement-level left fielder, overall. A replacement-level left fielder will have something resembling replacement-level offense and league-average defense. According to Baseball Prospectus' Runs Above Replacement Player statistic, Raul was about +30 runs at the plate last season. UZR says he was -30 runs in the field. Even if you consider that way too extreme to be real, -20 works as a compromise (seriously, he was really really bad), and then you're talking about Raul being about one win better on the season as a whole than someone like Jason Ellison or Jeremy Reed. If you've ever wondered how bad of a fielder someone has to be to cancel out an .831 OPS, 2007 Raul Ibanez is your answer.
The fact that Raul was injured for the first half or so makes this a little less meaningful in a retrospective sense, and it doesn't do us that much good to bitch about it considering Raul started hitting like a crazy person soon after the calls for AJ really began in earnest, but this can't be ignored going forward. Even if Raul stays consistently productive at the plate, that doesn't mean he isn't slipping in the field, and he's clearly taken a gigantic step back from where he was a few years ago. At this point, Raul Ibanez is a left fielder in name only. The only offseason Mariner plans worth pursuing are those that involve moving Raul somewhere less conspicuous.
It's not that I don't think Raul can contribute in 2008. It's not that at all. It's just that he stands a much, much greater chance of being an asset at first base or DH, where he isn't actively crippling a pitching staff that needs all the help it can get. As a left-handed DH who sits a lot of the time when there's a southpaw on the mound, Raul Ibanez can be a big help. As a spasming corpse in left field, he can't, or at least not anywhere close to the same extent.
One problem we have is that the Seattle Mariners, in their current incarnation, don't have a clue when it comes to assessing the significance of individual glovework. They'd probably be quite content to lose Guillen, shift AJ into right, and leave the rest of the unit as it is. However, since early November should be a time for warm fuzzies, I'm going to go ahead and try to give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume that even they understand how bad Raul's defense really is. And hey, Geoff Jenkins is a veteran local free agent who provides left-handed sock. Take the bait guys. Please. If ever there were a good time to live up to your stereotype, this is it.