Move to Mariners looks imminent for Jeff Clement, Wladimir Balentien
Jeff Clement says he's not even aware of the rampant speculation about his immediate future, and he's such an earnest and well-meaning young...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
TACOMA — Jeff Clement says he's not even aware of the rampant speculation about his immediate future, and he's such an earnest and well-meaning young man that you have to believe him.
"I just stay away from it, because that's not going to improve what I do between the lines," Clement said before Tuesday's Tacoma Rainiers game at Cheney Stadium — which just might be his last minor-league game for a while.
"Ultimately what matters is handling a pitching staff, calling a game, and hitting the ball. If I'm looking at any speculation, I'm not going to be as successful out on the field."
Clement, 24, chooses to be willfully oblivious, avoiding Mariners discussion in newspapers, blogs and radio shows. But for those paying attention, all signs point toward Clement's imminent arrival with the Mariners — and he might not be alone.
For the first time all season, Clement was not in the starting lineup at either catcher or designated hitter Tuesday for Tacoma's game with New Orleans.
Nor was outfielder Wladimir Balentien, who just happened to have hit three home runs in Monday's game.
Odd time for a benching, unless, of course, the duo is Cleveland-bound to join the Mariners. Their absence from the lineup was interpreted here as a huge red flag that something was brewing.
I stuck my head in the office of Tacoma manager Daren Brown after batting practice and asked whether there was anything to read into the suspicious omission of Clement and Balentien from his lineup card.
"No, but I wouldn't tell you if there was," he said pleasantly, ever the company man. "It was cold last night. They need a day off."
What the Mariners need, Tuesday's late offensive awakening against the Indians notwithstanding, is Clement and Balentien. Not just for a youthful infusion of offensive energy, but because they've earned it.
Every once in a while, there are minor-leaguers for whom the collective will of the people absolutely cries out for promotion. In 2005, it was Felix Hernandez. Last year, it was Adam Jones. And this year, it is the catcher from Iowa and the outfielder from Curacao.
Clement is hitting .397 after 23 games, with five homers and 20 runs batted in. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage is a superb 1.227. He has 22 walks and 12 strikeouts. He hits left-handed, and could slide between catcher and designated hitter, two moribund offensive positions so far this season. His work behind the plate has improved exponentially.
"He's a selective hitter," Brown said of Clement. "He's getting his pitch to hit and not missing it a whole lot. All those are things a big-league hitter has to do."
Balentien, back from a weeklong absence from a bruised kneecap, is hitting .254 with six homers and 20 RBI. His OPS is .948. Despite Brad Wilkerson's three-hit night that raised his average 33 points, he is still hitting just .232 with four extra-base hits.
"If the need is there," Brown allowed, "I think both these guys would do a nice job."
After the game, a 7-3 Tacoma loss, Mariners minor-league director Greg Hunter declined to comment on the status of Clement and Balentien.
Said Brown: "People can read whatever they want into it. Clement hasn't had a day off, and Balentien has played a couple days in a row after being off eight days. Both of them are healthy, but it's just a day off."
When I spoke to Clement and Balentien on Tuesday, neither professed to have a clue about the Mariners' immediate plans for them.
"Noooooo," Clement said, drawing out the word for emphasis. "I don't think anyone has a clue except the people making those decisions. You can speculate, but it doesn't matter."
Balentien said he didn't read too much into not starting Tuesday's game just 24 hours after his homer binge. He's coming off the knee injury, he pointed out, and the team didn't want to push him.
"It's not surprising," he said.
Well, maybe, but he sure looked to be moving well during pregame drills. Balentien said he, too, is trying to maintain tunnel vision.
"I can't be in two places at the same time," the 23-year-old said with a shrug. "I can't play here if my mind is over there [with the Mariners]. I have to play in Tacoma, and my mind has to be in Tacoma, so I can take care of business here."
His patience comes with a footnote, however.
"No player wants to go up and down," he said. "They want to go up and stay for a long time. That's what I have in my mind. I'm trying to work hard and do everything I need to do, so that the one time I get that shot, hopefully, it will be forever."
For Clement, it has been a topsy-turvy week. It began with the jarring news that pending free agent Kenji Johjima, who is blocking his path to a regular catching job in Seattle, had been signed to a three-year extension.
Clement's first reaction, he said, was happiness for Johjima, whom he befriended in spring training.
"As long as your heart's in the right place and your focus is in the right areas, then it's going to work out the way it's supposed to," Clement said. "And it never works out the way you think it's going to. I do know that."
It may work out sooner than Clement ever expected.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.