HONOLULU–Of all the U.S. players in Hawaii Winter Baseball, Mariners prospect Jeff Clement came in with the most experience at the highest level in the minors. Yet, he has struggled, as has the majority of the hitters in the pitching-strong league.
The third overall selection from the 2005 draft out of Southern California was batting .174 with one double, home run and two RBIs in 46 at-bats as of Nov. 16 with at least five games to go, plus the championship his Waikiki BeachBoys are expected to play in on Nov. 22. But the Mariners sent help.
A lot of it.
This past week, Clement and the other Mariners position players–first baseman Reed Eastley (.192) and outfielder Sebastien Boucher (.151) got help from Mariners’™ big league hitting coach Jeff Pentland and newly-hired hitting coordinator Alonzo Powell. They were accompanied by catching coordinator Roger Hansen and director of player development Frank Mattox.
“Jeff’™s a priority in our organization,” said Pentland. “When you’™re a young kid and never struggled, you worry about him making adjustments. Usually what you do is if you tweak it (his swing) a little bit, just shorten it up to compete against the big league pitchers.”
Clement was fast-tracked this past season. After spending his first pro season at short-season Everett and Low-A Wisconsin, Clement skipped high Class A and started 2006 at Double-A San Antonio, where he hit .288 with six doubles, a triple and two home runs with 10 RBI in just two weeks into the season before having surgeries to remove bone chips from his left elbow and to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Yet when he returned from rehab, he was sent to Triple-A Tacoma, where he batted a respectable .257 with 10 doubles, four home runs and 32 RBIs in 67 games. To make up lost at-bats because of the injuries, he was sent to HWB.
“They wanted me to come out here and get some more at-bats,” Clement said. That was the primary reason I came out here. But when you play the game, you want to get better at every part of it, whether it’™s defensively or offensively, or just trying to stay focused on everything.”
Clement got on the fast track when he was invited to big league camp in only his second season of pro ball. That was when Pentland got his first look at the left-handed hitting catcher.
“I was very impressed with his bat speed and the power he had,” Pentland said. “Certainly, there were things he needed to adjust to and fix. The natural talent was there.
“The organization has made it clear to everybody and himself that he should be in the big leagues and soon. I think what Jeff has done is that he’™s focused so much on his catching that his hitting has gotten away from him just a little bit. It’™s been so easy for him over the years. When you get in professional ball, it’™s not as easy as it used to be, so when you’™ve never struggled before and you start struggling, I think you kind of panic a little bit and you get tight and a little tension in there. But he seems like he’™s a lot happier. We’™ve done some work with him, just trying to loosen him up and allow him to play.”
Whether it was fair to send him to Triple-A after being out about eight weeks with the injuries, Clement had no complaints.
“It was a good opportunity for me,” he said. “I wasn’™t expecting to go to Triple-A coming off the injuries, but it was a good opportunity to play at the highest level of the minor leagues. I played with some veterans and see how they got to go about their business, try to adapt to playing at such a high level.”
He’™s not worried about where he will be assigned this coming spring.
“I trust the people making the decisions and what’™s best for me and that’™s where I’™ll end up,” Clement said.
All he knows is that he is pleased that the Mariners sent their coaches to Hawaii.
“I really feel like in the last couple days, I’™ve made some strides,” Clement said. “I’™m going to try and finish out strong moving into the offseason and try to keep getting better, so when I get into spring training, I’™ll be productive.”
Pentland isn’™t overly concerned with Clement’™s struggles in HWB. The BeachBoys team Clement is on has three other catchers and the league plays only 40 games.
“I don’™t think there was a big concern with his bat as he struggles,” Pentland said. “But he’™s only had 40 at-bats, which is kind of unfair because this team has four catchers, so it’™s hard to get a lot of games. I’™m not using that as an excuse; I think the organization felt like they didn’™t want him to get into any bat habits, so they sent Alonzo and I over here to make sure he’™s going down the right path. By talking to him I think he was glad that we came.”
• Yomiuri Giants pitching coach Masaki Saito, one of two pitching coaches for the Honoulu Sharks, is a three-time winner of the Eji Sawamura Award, or the Japanese version of the Cy Young Award. He offered his thoughts on Seibu Lions righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who could be in the Red Sox rotation by next season if a deal can be struck by mid-December.
“Matsuzaka is in great shape and doesn’™t get hurt much,” Saito said. “He has an excellent body, so he will be able to pitch a whole season with four days rest or whatever. Hopefully, he’™ll win a lot of games.
“Ever since Hideo Nomo went to the United States, going to the Major Leagues is like going to the top level. That has become the big status for the Japanese people. For the Japanese league itself, losing Matsuzaka to the major leagues is like losing a star, so it will be a little sad. At the same time, we’™re rooting for him and all the Japanese people will be behind him, too.”
• Yomiuri hopes it has a future Matsuzaka in 18-year-old Takanobu Tsujiuchi, the top draft pick from 2005. The lefthander pitches for the Sharks in HWB. He is 1-2 with a 3.86 earned run average with 31 strikeouts, but with 16 walks in 25 2/3 innings (as of Nov. 16).
“His fastball is already at the major-league level,” Saito said. “However, for him to win in the major leagues, he must be able to command his off-speed pitches. He needs two quality breaking balls in order to be successful in the major leagues.”
Tsujiuchi, whose fastball has been clocked in the mid-90-mph range, pitched for the Giants’™ minor league club this past season. Saito said his outings were inconsistent.
• The HWB season ends Nov. 22 with the league championship. The East champion will play the West champion at Les Murakami Stadium. The Waikiki BeachBoys and Honolulu Sharks make up the East, while the North Shore Honu and West Oahu CaneFires belong to the West.