Jeff Clement takes his cuts in Tacoma, waiting for another chance in the big leagues
Clement, the No. 3 pick in 2005 draft, has been the Rainiers' designated hitter. He hasn't caught a game since May.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TACOMA — Those bright eyes of an All-American Iowan now have some miles on them. Jeff Clement, who two years ago was considered the Mariners' power-hitting catcher of the future, is halfway through another season in Class AAA Tacoma, his fourth since his first appearance with the Rainiers in 2006 on the fast track to major-league stardom.
"If I had all the answers, I probably wouldn't be here right now," Clement says.
Clement lost his major-league spot to Rob Johnson in the spring, while still recovering from knee surgery, and now is in somewhat of a baseball purgatory. The Mariners already have Kenji Johjima, the apple of their owner's eye, and Johnson, a clubhouse favorite, catching in the majors. Ken Griffey Jr. fills Clement's possible role as a left-handed designated hitter. And even when the Mariners needed a bat this season, the club has turned to Mike Carp and Chris Shelton.
And even in Triple A, Clement has competition in Adam Moore. Moore, who like Clement is 25, has risen quickly through the organization and has caught most of the season in Tacoma as the Mariners remain cautious with Clement's knees.
"It is tough for a guy that spent some time up there [in Seattle] last year and he's here," says Daren Brown, who has managed the Rainiers for three seasons. "That's this level, and you can either deal with it the wrong way and let it bother you and affect what you're doing on the field here, or you can just go about your business, which I think he's done a nice job of doing."
After a slow start, Clement entered Friday night's home game against Portland hitting .283 with 12 home runs and 53 RBI.
"Obviously I'm comfortable here and I've played a lot of games here," Clement says. "It's good to feel comfortable, but it would be a lot better to feel comfortable at the major-league level."
The Pacific Coast League is packed with players who have been consistently on the cusp of the major leagues. What separates Clement is his pedigree: he was the third pick in 2005, a loaded draft that included eventual All-Stars Justin Upton, Ryan Braun and Ryan Zimmerman and several other productive players. And Clement had provided so many glimpses of power — especially in his brief September call-up to the Mariners in 2007 — that a major-league future has often seemed inevitable.
"His potential is off the charts," says Johnson, who is one of Clement's closest friends in the organization.
In September 2007, Clement came up to the Mariners for nine games and hit .375 with two home runs. When he was called up again early in 2008, he had a shot to play on close to an everyday basis. But as he hit .167 in 15 games, it was easy for Brown to see why from Tacoma. Clement had expanded his strike zone and was reaching for pitches he usually took. The harder he pressed, the more Clement struggled.
He was called up again in June, and he struggled again until he got hot in August. In his final 28 games before he was shut down for knee surgery on Sept. 7, Clement hit .317 with 12 RBI.
It took the entire offseason to rehab that knee, and it was still swollen as spring training began. In 17 spring games, Clement hit .268, and the Mariners chose Johnson to join Johjima on the major-league roster. After being sent to Tacoma, Clement began the season in a slump, hitting just .209 through May 10.
"[He was] probably impatient to start the season here," Brown says. "For me that's all about learning to handle situations both physically and mentally, and it's not easy for some guys."
Since then, Clement has recovered, even as the Rainiers have moved him from catcher to designated hitter. He has not caught a game since May, but his greatest value is as a catcher with an above-average bat.
"Early on, I had some of the knee issues that prevented me from catching as much as I would have liked, but it's feeling pretty darn good right now," he says.
Clement has even played three games, including Wednesday's, as a first baseman. When the Mariners first approached Clement about the move in the spring, he had not taken a ground ball in at least seven years. But he understands having the versatility to play another position can only help him, and perhaps even be what gets him back on a big-league roster.
"It has always been my dream to be a major-league baseball player," Clement says. "So the fact that at 25, I can show up on the field and play the game is great. Hopefully, I can continue playing for the next 10, 15 years and be productive at the major-league level."
Tom Wyrwich: 206-515-5653 or email@example.comGood company
Jeff Clement is part of a talented group of players drafted in 2005. A look at the top seven players chosen, and the best of the rest from the 2005 first round:
No./Player, team/Pro career
1./Justin Upton, Arizona/2009 All-Star
2./Alex Gordon, Kansas City/.250 hitter in two-plus seasons
3./Jeff Clement, Mariners/Hitting .237 in 75 major-league games
4./Ryan Zimmerman, Washington/2009 All-Star
5./Ryan Braun, Milwaukee/2007 NL ROY, two-time All-Star
6./Ricky Romero, Toronto/Front-runner for 2009 AL ROY
7./Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado/Finished second in 2007 NL ROY voting
9./Mike Pelfrey, Mets/Won 13 games in 2008
11./Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh/Pirates' CF, leadoff hitter is hitting .291
12./Jay Bruce, Cincinnati/Has 18 HRs this season
16./Chris Volstad, Florida/Has a 3.76 ERA in 32 career starts
23./Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston/Spark plug is a .295 hitter in three seasons
25./Matt Garza, Minnesota/Helped Tampa Bay reach 2008 World Series
28./Colby Rasmus, St. Louis/One of NL's top rookies in 2009
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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