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Wednesday, June 12
Cirillo can't hit; neither can Cards' bench

By Rob Neyer

A year ago, as the Mariners rolled along their merry way to 116 regular-season wins, it was apparent that they had two weak spots. Or rather, one and a half weak spots: third base, and left field when Mark McLemore wasn't playing.

Mind you, David Bell wasn't terrible. It wasn't a good year for American League third basemen, and only six AL teams featured third basemen who were arguably better than Bell.

Still, a general manager's job each winter is to improve his club, even if his club just won 116 games. So Pat Gillick tried to get better at third base and left field, acquiring Jeff Cirillo for the former and Ruben Sierra for the latter. And David Bell was sent packing, eventually traded to San Francisco for Desi Relaford.

Jeff Cirillo
Third Base
Seattle Mariners
203 5 31 20 .613 .232

Here's how those two third basemen have fared last season and this:

                OBP  Slug  
Bell, 2001     .303  .415 
Cirillo, 2001  .364  .473
Cirillo, 2002  .280  .330
Bell, 2002     .314  .405

You gotta hand it to Bell; if nothing else, he's consistent. His percentages in both 2001 and 2002 are very close to his career marks entering both seasons.

The same can't be said of Cirillo. As a Brewer, he was one of the best third basemen in the American League, and then the National. When he went to the Rockies, he was supposed to remain one of the National League's best third basemen, and post some pretty Coors-inflated statistics. I thought he would, and Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd certainly thought he would.

He didn't. Instead, Cirillo's numbers held steady across the board ... except for his walks, which went down in Colorado. And this year, everything is down. Walks, hits, homers ... the only thing that's up is Cirillo's salary.

I still think Cirillo will turn things around ... but then again, I thought Cirillo would make hay in Denver, too. If he doesn't improve, and improve significantly, his big contract -- Cirillo makes nearly $6.4 million this season -- will stand as one of the few black marks against Pat Gillick's tenure in Seattle.

Meanwhile, Bell's not doing any better than he did last year ... but he's doing relatively cheaply: "only" $1.75 million for the season.

It was fun watching Lou Piniella and Tony La Russa trying to out-strategize each other in the top of the sixth inning last night. Seattle led 1-0 when Eli Marrero led off with a base hit, and Fernando Vina followed with another. That brought up Placido Polanco, who had already bunted with nobody out in the first (during which the Cardinals didn't score). He sacrificed again, leaving men on second and third with one out, J.D. Drew due next.

Right-hander James Baldwin was pitching for the M's and Drew bats lefty. So with righty Albert Pujols on deck, Piniella put up four fingers.

Getting the platoon edge and setting up the double play is fine, I suppose, but loading the bases is not. You put too much pressure on the pitcher. This pitcher, anyway. Baldwin got behind 2-0 to Pujols, then grooved a fastball that Pujols deposited over the wall in dead center for a grand slam. (And yet again, the sacrifice "worked"!)

Speaking of La Russa, that was an odd lineup he threw out there. A weak-hitting utility infielder at third base (Polanco), a weak-hitting utility infielder as DH (Miguel Cairo), a weak-hitting catcher in center field (Marrero, who's actually hitting well this season), and of course a weak-hitting catcher as catcher (Mike Matheny). I know I've written this before, but while versatility is great, it's also nice to have some guys on your bench who can actually hit. And La Russa doesn't have enough guys who can hit.

I'll say this for Marrero, though: I don't know what his defensive statistics look like, but he looks pretty good in the outfield. He didn't have to make any tough plays last night, but handled all of the plays he did have to make with apparent ease.

The same can't be said of Albert Pujols in left field. In the eighth, John Olerud drove a pitch straight toward Pujols, who turned to his left, then turned to his right, then bent over as the ball skipped past his feet and on to the wall.

And the call? Clean double. The more of these horrible scoring decisions that occur, the more I think we should just give up. No more errors, unless you need to account for the advancement of a baserunner (or runners). If scorers aren't going to assign obvious errors, then how much meaning does the statistic really have?

Of course, if you do away with errors, you'll take away broadcasters' favorite fielding metric. Don't worry, though; I've got an alternative. Defensive Efficiency measures how many balls in play are turned into outs, and I suspect that it's a significantly better measure of a team's defensive performance than fielding percentage anyway.

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