When the Mariners took the, umm, telephone, and made the third overall selection in the 2005 First Year Players Draft, there was very little doubt about which few talents they were strongly considering. The draft’s two best talents – Alex Gordon and Justin Upton – were already gone, and the Mariners needed to nail the selection while adding depth to their farm system and a can’t miss bat to their lineup.
With rumors of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and OF Cameron Maybin, the Mariners believed their “need” player matched their “best available” player, and selected Jeff Clement, an offensive catcher from the University of Southern California.
Since then, Maybin has become among the top 10 prospects in baseball, Tulowitzki has earned a starting role in the big leagues, and several others that were taken after Clement have seen much brighter days, including Milwaukee’s slugger Ryan Braun (No. 5), Boston outfielder Jacob Ellsbury (No. 23), Twins righty Matt Garza (No. 25), Mets right-hander Mike Pelfrey (No. 9) and Nationals’ 3B Ryan Zimmerman (No. 4).
But there’s more than hope for Clement, who plays a position that is known to take longer for development, and several explanations for not “lighting up” the box scores since draft day.
He’s been mishandled, injured and forced to share time when he deserves better. If the club allows him get back on the right path to the bigs, that’s exactly where he’ll be in no time at all.
Strengths: Clement is a left-handed bat with plus power potential and solid plate skills, including a much better batting eye than he displayed post-knee surgery a year ago. With quick wrists propelling a short, line-drive swing, the offense-first catcher has all the tools to bat in the middle of a big-league lineup for several years.
He’s capable of going the other way, and with power, and while he runs like a catcher, he’s also got solid base-running instincts and his work ethic will not be the reason he fails at anything.
Clement possesses good makeup and has the desire to improve enough defensively to succeed Kenji Johjima as the Seattle Mariners full-time backstop.
Weaknesses: Clement lacks athleticism which may catch up with him in his endeavor to prove he can stick behind the plate. He has adequate strength and hands and should eventually develop solid throwing technique but the questions that remain include his ability to move laterally to block pitches.
|23||6-1||215||Left||Right||Draft, 2005 – 1st round
Hitting for Average (on-base skills): Clement occasionally displays the inability to cover the outer half of the plate but his overall approach and aptitude to take pitches to the opposite field is enough evidence that he’ll fill that gap with more experience versus better pitching.
Clement is patient but still has room to grow in that area while he polishes off his strike zone judgment and sharpens his pitch recognition, which is already solid. He’ll draw an adequate number of walks and should ultimately limit the strikeouts to satisfactory levels – both very positive signs for his future with the bat.
If he’s able to maximize his development, there’s no reason Clement can’t hit in the .270s with solid on-base percentages in the .340-.360 range.
Hitting for Power: Clement is the type of power bat that teams covet because he doesn’t have to swing out of his shoes to produce the bat speed necessary to send pitches sailing 350-400 feet.
Instead, he relies on balance and timing, centered around a classic hip-turn that pulls his bat through the zone with plus bat speed. Clement is a classic repetition hitter that is likely to improve with every plate appearance, and though his future behind the plate is somewhat in question, he’s still a good bet to turn into a well above-average performer standing next to it.
Glove: Clement isn’t a bad defensive catcher, his shortcomings are mostly due to lack of proper instruction and, here’s that word again, repetition. Injury pretty much robbed him of a full year of development, but he’s made strides since the end of last season that have the Mariners excited about what lies ahead.
Clement’s hands are “light years better,” as one member of the player development department said, than they were at the start of last season and his understanding of the position has improved significantly. When knowing what to do is half the battle, it’s an enormous step when those instructing begin to let the student teach himself, and that’s starting to happen with Clement.
He’s springing up out of his crouch better than ever, thanks to a healthy knee and enhanced catch-and-throw mechanics.
While the coaches are seeing the improvements, pitchers are starting to notice, too, and that may be more important than anything. One right-hander opined that he’s twice the catcher he was last year.
“I had no idea it was Clement back there,” he said. “I remember last year he seemed uncomfortable in his squat, which made me a little uncomfortable throwing to him. I guess since I didn’t know him at all, I wasn’t too confident with him back there.
“Man, I thought it was (Rob) Johnson or (Adam) Moore, or maybe one of the new guys. He seemed much more confident and active.”
While a Gold Glove is not likely in Clement’s future, it appears that his chances to catch, at least some, in the big leagues improve with every day of experience.
Arm: With adequate arm strength, Clement’s throwing technique, like everything else in his game, just needs time. Like pitchers, catchers need to repeat their throwing motion to develop consistent, accurate throws and eliminate any delay-forcing hitches in their mechanics.
If Clement is to become an everyday catcher, he’ll certainly need to vastly improve his throwing, but it, too, has gotten better over the past eight months, even without much playing time.
Future: While projecting Clement as an all-star catcher is probably going too far, he’s got the offensive skills to do just that. If the M’s are patient enough with his catching, and can avoid rushing his bat, the USC product remains a pretty good prospect that could provide the big club with a number of prolific seasons.
The club probably stunted his development by rushing him to Triple-A Tacoma last summer, and it appears they are backing off that approach somewhat this season.
At last check, the M’s are considering sending Clement to Double-A West Tennessee where he can play everyday in a contented environment. Splitting time with Rob Johnson, or anyone else for that matter, isn’t conducive to either player’s development, particularly Clement’s, who needs the time defensively.
“It’s irresponsible to do what they (Mariners) did last year,” said a rival front office member. “They rushed their shortstop (Asdrubal Cabrera) before trading him, they rushed both catchers (Johnson, Clement) and they pushed Tui (Matt Tuiassosopo) far too qucikly. They should know better, and I bet they do.
“It really seems like they promoted those kids to make something that wasn’t there naturally. You can’t create value in your prospects that way, it’s going to catch up to them at some point, and they went o-fer with all of them. It’s not only counterproductive, it’s inexcusable and probably cost themselves and their players career time, or possible a career at all.
“Clement probably was effected the most, since he had the most to lose. I’m telling you, if he’s handled properly, he’s still a big-time prospect and I’m really excited for his future.”
MLB ETA: 2007 (September)
Ceiling: Jorge Posada
Median: Robert Fick
Cellar: Eric Munson
PI Projection: .283/.344/.459, 48 BB, 78 K
Churchill on Clement: I really like Clement, and I can’t really point to one thing that I like most about his game. Of course, his ceiling defensively is in the average range, and there is still a decent chance he never catches a game in the majors, but you have to like a guy who just goes to work every day, no complaints, no whining, no excuses, no days off, and absolutely no artificial fanfare.
Sounds like a catcher to me.
While just about everything you hear about Clement is that he may not catch, or won’t catch, or can’t catch, some are also doubting his bat, which to me is a little odd, especially those who loved his bat a year ago and have done a 180.
What’s changed, I ask. He was raking in Double-A, just as most expected he would, and was rushed to Tacoma where he struggled to shake off the rust and never found any consistency, neither physically with the knee and elbow nor with on-field performance.
If anything is excusable, it’s being rushed back from injury and thrust into situations where he had little chance to succeed, and failing.
It’s not an excuse, it’s just very excusable. Clement can hit, and didn’t forget how while rehabbing from knee surgery.
Besides, the biggest problems at the plate in Tacoma were about making contact and squaring up the fastball and getting some pop behind it.
He’ll hit, and that’s the key to his status as a major asset in the farm system.
If he catches, which will necessitate the M’s being patient enough for him to develop, he’s damned near a bluechipper.