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Community Projection: Jeff Clement

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The twelfth in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each(?) of the players we predicted last spring.

LL/USSM Community: .274/.346/.465
Actual Line: .227/.295/.360

Disastrous seasons aren't supposed to coincide with a 1.131 OPS in AAA, but I think it's fair to say that a disastrous season is exactly what Jeff Clement had in 2008.

After turning the corner and coming on strong in Tacoma in 2007, Clement kicked off 2008 hotter than vintage Eliza Dushku in a hockey jersey, collecting twice as many walks as strikeouts through the first month and batting nearly .400 on his way to a late April promotion. Having made the move while still hovering around .500, the Mariners intended to use Clement's scorching bat to ignite a slumping offense in need of new blood. Instead, though, Clement struggled to produce, collecting only eight hits in 15 games without a single home run before getting sent back to the minors in May. Whether or not the demotion was justifiable is an open question - at the time, Jose Vidro was just as big a pile of crap - but that's a separate matter, and the bottom line is that, when given his first trial, Jeff Clement didn't take advantage.

So Clement spent another month beating the snot out of the ball in Tacoma. Where his April was partially inflated by a high BABIP, over 109 PAs in May and June Clement slugged a legitimate .670, clubbing nine homers while hitting 50% fly balls. Once again he demonstrated that he had nothing left to learn at the plate in the minors, so once again he got promoted to the big leagues, this time in an effort to introduce more youth to a ballclub going nowhere.

And once again, he struggled. Things weren't quite as bad this time as they had been earlier, but he was still striking out too often, and he didn't hit a home run after July 13th. His .245/.298/.394 batting line over the course of his second extended stint gave him a total .655 OPS on the season, and while there were occasional glimpses of power and discipline, the impression he left was that of a young player in no way shape or form prepared to hit against Major League pitchers. It was a disappointment of a big league campaign that ended with Clement getting a knee procedure for the second time in three years.

I don't know that things really could've gone much worse for Clement in Seattle. Just consider the three elements of his game:

  • OFFENSE: Clement's plate discipline disappeared when he got to the big leagues. His swing rate on balls in the zone was below-average while his swing rate on balls out of the zone ranked in the upper fifth. In other words, while Clement was swinging the bat with normal frequency, he wasn't swinging at the right pitches. He went fishing after too many sliders, struggled with changeups, and did his best to simply ignore curveballs. When he made contact, he was able to hit the ball with some degree of force, but neither his home runs nor his line drives showed up nearly as often as his minor league performance would've predicted. It was an all-around bad year for a guy who had the tools to be a whole hell of a lot better.
  • DEFENSE: A project behind the plate since the day he was drafted, Clement still didn't look very comfortable this past season. While there's no way for us to quantify how well or how poorly a guy calls a game, Clement had trouble in every other relevant area, from receiving the ball to fielding pop-ups to throwing out runners. His footwork remains all kinds of bad, and while there was improvement, there wasn't enough.
  • HEALTH: Two knee surgeries in three years. From the press release:

    Mariners medical director Dr. Edward Khalfayan will perform the arthroscopic procedure to repair a lateral meniscus tear and a medial meniscus tear in Clement's left knee...It is believed the tears were the result of normal wear and tear, not any one traumatic incident.

    Clement is 25 years old, and he's already had two knee operations to address issues brought about by the wear and tear of his everyday job. It's worse that these tears aren't the result of a traumatic accident, because at least those are accidents. Being  the result of wear and tear is an indication that Clement's body is unable to withstand the rigors of his work.

There can't be a Mariner coach or fan in the world who feels good about Jeff Clement's 2008. The season provided so many more questions than answers, and that's the last thing this team needed from a guy they've been counting on to help pull them out of the cellar. Jeff Clement was supposed to be an established, successful big leaguer by now. Instead, four years into his professional career, he's a questionable bat without a position.

The "questionable bat" is the lesser of Clement's main problems going forward. While there's no ignoring his struggles, it's not fair to evaluate Clement's offensive ability by looking at the poor numbers he's put up in the big leagues so far. He does have a decent eye, he does have good power, and he does have a pretty high ceiling. These are irrefutable facts. It's just that what Clement did in Seattle this year served to squelch the excitement generated by what he did in Tacoma. It's not unusual for even the best young hitters to come up and have some trouble during early exposure, but after seeing Clement look the way he did, it's worth considering that he may be more flawed than many thought. At 25, he needs to start hitting. If it turns out that his peak might be, say, an .850 OPS instead of a .950 OPS, then that's a big deal.

The other problems are interrelated, and far more significant. Jeff Clement is not a good defensive catcher. He's not a bad defensive catcher. He's a lousy defensive catcher, and his work there has on multiple occasions taken a toll on his health. There was already a good discussion on this matter two weeks ago, so I won't go into detail, but here's what it comes down to: Clement is way, way more valuable as a catcher than as a first baseman or DH, and if he isn't able to stick behind the plate, then that takes a lot of the shine off the apple. An average defensive catcher only needs to hit like Rickie Weeks to be a 3 WAR asset. An average defensive first baseman needs to hit like Carlos Beltran. A DH needs to hit like Chase Utley. Clement was a high draft pick because he could swing a solid bat as a catcher. His future value rests on the fate of both of those characteristics.

It's also worth mentioning, as Dave pointed out in that earlier thread, that being a catcher may be holding Clement's bat back from further development, which only complicates things even more. It makes sense; the more time you spend trying to make a guy better at a defensive position, the less time he has to work on his hitting. On this matter we can't be certain either way, but it is a distinct possibility, and that clouds the picture.

Looking ahead, Jeff Clement has a lot of work to do. I don't know how the team sees things playing out, but it seems to me that 2009 should be the most significant season of Clement's career. If he wants to preserve his ceiling as a potential star, he needs to improve his footwork behind the plate, put up something at least approximating a league-average batting line, and stay healthy. He needs to prove that he can be an all-around effective player while remaining as a backstop, because that's something he has yet to do, and at 25, he's running out of chances. You can only give a guy so long of a leash before you're forced to go in another direction.

If Clement's able to stick behind the plate, that's awesome. That's great for him and great for the team. If he's not, then that's worse. Unfortunately this is the way things appear to be leaning. Honestly, as much as I'm hoping for improvement, I just can't foresee too many scenarios in which Clement's still a regular catcher in 2010. He's had so much time to get better already that the odds are stacked against him.

Which is all right, I guess, so long as you're able to let go of what might have been. If Clement has to move to first base or DH, he can still be a valuable player. He just ends up with a lower ceiling than he had as a draft pick. Even so, there's nothing wrong with having a good hitter with minimal positional value. Clement would simply have to make sure to bring his bat more often than he did with Seattle in 2008.

2009 could use a good Jeff Clement, and Jeff Clement could use a good 2009. It won't be a season that makes or breaks his career, but it will likely be a season that determines whether or not he ever turns into what we wanted him to be. The organizational outlook is just so different with Clement behind the plate than it is with him at first or DH. Say hello to one of the most important storylines of the year. Jeff, the team has given you everything up to this point. Now it's your move. Prove that you belong.