Saturday, January 16, 2010

Jeff Clement

Jeffrey B. Clement was born August 21, 1983 in Marshalltown, Iowa, and became a local legend in a hurry. As a twelve year old, Clement led the 1996 Marshalltown entry to a spot in the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

At Marshalltown High School, he broke the national high school home run record, formerly held by Drew Henson, with 75 dingers. Clement led his Bobcat team as a catcher/pitcher to the Iowa 4-A State Championship game in his senior year.

Clement was featured in the September 16, 2002, issue of Sports Illustrated as part of the "For the Love of the Game" article. Hey, "Field of Dreams" is set in Iowa, right? He fit right in.

He was drafted in the 12th round by the Minnesota Twins (362nd overall) in 2002. Too low, he thought, and so it was off to Southern Cal.

Clement started right away at SoCal, and also played on the U.S. National Team. In his freshman year, he was named Collegiate Baseball Freshman National Co-Player of the Year, Pac-10 Conference Freshman of the Year, earned Baseball America Freshman All-America first team, and Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American first team honors.

As a sophomore, Clement earned 2004 BA Preseason All-America first team and NCBWA Preseason All-America first team honors, as well as Collegiate Baseball Preseason All-America second team honors. He was also named as a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award.

In 2005, he won the Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top collegiate catcher, earned 2005 Baseball America All-America First Team, USA Today Sports Weekly All-America first team and Collegiate Baseball All-America first team honors, as well as 2005 National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association All-America third team honors, was a Finalist for the 2005 Golden Spikes Award, and named All-Pac-10 for the third straight year. Whew! Pretty good junior year, we'd say.

His Trojan line that season was .348/.469/.617 with a 1.086 OPS, 15 homers and 52 RBI in 230 at-bats.

Not too surprisingly, his draft status shot through the roof. Clement was the Seattle Mariners' first round draft pick (third overall) in the 2005 draft, inking a $3.4M deal in a class that included Justin Upton, Ryan Braun and Ryan Zimmerman.

The big lefty started out in A ball, and played 15 games in AA the next season before being promoted to AAA, and there he's stayed, with an occasional cup of coffee in the show (.237/.309/.393, 7 HR/26 RBI, 219 at-bats), ever since.

His 2006 season was cut short by knee surgery and by an operation to remove bone chips from his elbow.

Overall, he's compiled a .282/.370/.495 minor league line with 67 homers and 276 RBI in just over 400 games. Clement walked at about a 10% rate and whiffed at a 20% rate. And until the Bucs got him as part of the Jack Splat/Ian Snell booty, Clement was used almost exclusively behind the plate.

When the M's made a major commitment to 33 year-old Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima by signing him to a $16.5M, three-year contract in 2008, Clement's future in Seattle was pretty well sealed, especially with a young Adam Moore tailing him in the M's system. Knee surgery, always a red flag for backstops, derailed him at the end of 2008, so both hinges have been under the knife.

He was optioned to the Triple A Tacoma Rainiers late in spring training, and in late July caught a cross-country flight to Indy.

In a very small big-league sample, Clement strikes out too much, walks too little, and has a odd split - he hit lefties 75 points better than righties. And that's why no one bases anything on such sketchy data. His minor league plate discipline was much sharper, and his splits were much less spread.

He expanded his strike zone noticeably in the majors; hopefully, that was due to trying to show off his muscle rather than adjustment problems to MLB pitching.

The big question in Seattle was where to put him. The school of thought on the left coast was that Clement just wasn't going to pan out as a catcher, and had a 1B/DH future awaiting him. But oddly, the Seattle brass never played him anywhere but behind the dish except for a half-dozen games at first, though they did DH him quite a bit.

Pittsburgh, of course, doesn't have the DH option, so they're working him at first base. Clement, by most reports, isn't a train wreck there, showing a willingness to work and some athleticism, and he's been getting the Delwyn Young treatment in mini-camp, coming out early to learn the position.

The truth is that he's played 28 games at the position. The Pirates would love to get a big lefty bopper in the lineup, so they're giving him a long, hard look at first with the hopes that he'll come north with the team after spring camp.

Clement will be locked in a battle with Steve Pearce for the spot. He's just four months younger than Pearce, both have an option left and oodles of team control remaining on their clocks, so there's not much to pick from there. Clement crushes a ball; Pearce is a proven commodity at first.

Logically, the Pirates would probably be stronger in the short-term if Clement started at Indy and got some reps at first while platooning Pearce in Pittsburgh, who showed the ability to hit lefties.

And the Bucs might be better served to show off Pearce if they don't consider him part of the future, if they want to get anything in return when and if they decide to move him. Additionally, the right field/first base spot seems to be overflowing with left-handed hitters, though that could change quickly enough after camp.

But the middle of the order falls so much more nicely into place if Clement can produce at PNC, and there's always that pesky upside to consider, so it's going to be one of camp's more interesting match-ups.


Jon said...

I'm really hoping Clement beats out Pearce for the opening day job, but your point is well taken about the Pirates wanting to show him off to the rest of the league for trade reasons. Regardless of that, I think it's more important to see what they have in Clement (at the plate at least) as early as possible so they can make the right decision about where Alvarez should play. If Clement gets a lot of time at first this year and doesn't produce, they can start turning Alvarez into a first baseman next offseason (he can play winter ball or something) and then we can go from there. It's a good problem to have though.

- Jon (The Mc Effect)

WilliamJPellas said...

I agree with Jon, even though I'm not expecting much from Clement. If nothing else, it's nice to have some internal competition for one of our starting spots, even if it's between two guys who have been distinctly underwhelming in their big league careers to this point.

I agree totally, though, with Ron: the most logical solution would be to send Clement back to Indy to get more live action at first, then platoon Pearce with Jones until we see when Alvarez is ready to come up. Beyond Pedro's arrival, I would think we would need to deal a lefthanded bat before bringing Clement back up. I'd imagine Ryan Church might not be long for Pittsburgh in that scenario, though Clement---as we've seen---is no sure thing.

I'm just curious enough about Clement to want to see him for a couple hundred consistent at-bats in Pittsburgh, ie, run him out there more or less every day for 50 games and see what happens. Again, I'm not expecting much, but the guy has had 2 knee surgeries, and that can definitely affect a player's hitting. So if he's more or less physically sound now, we probably don't have much to lose by taking a look at him. I will say, though, that I sure hope we have the first base question resolved by next spring, 'cuz this is getting old.

Ron Ieraci said...

I know where you're comin' from, guys. I'm just a little tired of seeing the Bucs throw a pup into the fire for a couple hundred at-bats - two months! - and saying he's been given a fair shot at showing his stuff.

They could plan these auditions a little better - some platooning wouldn't hurt - and I think we'd get a clearer picture of what a guy can do at the MLB level.

WilliamJPellas said...

Hmmm....Ron, what would you say is a legitimate audtion for a guy coming up from the minors? Half a season? A full season? Keep in mind that 200 AB's, if they are done all at once, amounts to close to a full third of a season.

Ron Ieraci said...

Actually, Will, I'd prefer probably something like 350 at-bats during the season before I'd make a judgment, kinda like Doumit gets, lol! Exception made, of course, for guys like our former SS Bix; if you're completely lost, well, it doesn't take many at-bats to spot that.