McGrath: Cool solution for hot corner - Greg Dobbs
JOHN MCGRATH; THE NEWS TRIBUNE
Before I suggest a low-maintenance replacement for the high-stress position usually occupied by Adrian Beltre, please meet Charles “Piano Legs” Hickman.
OK, you can’t meet Hickman, as he has been dead for 75 years. But his struggles should be a warning of the hazards that await any novice attempting to follow in his footsteps.
In 1900, with the New York Giants, Hickman committed 86 errors. Actually, Piano Legs committed 87 – one in the outfield, and the other 86 at third base. It remains the single-season record for defensive ineptitude and explains why putting any old player at third base (or any young player, for that matter) might not be such a good idea. The ball will find you at third, and it will find you in a hurry.
So dismiss the speculation that Rainiers third baseman Chris Shelton (15 errors in Tacoma) will get the promotion to Seattle while Beltre recovers from elbow surgery for two months. A first baseman by trade, Shelton has been challenged to reinvent himself this season, and his effort has been admirable. But he’s not a major-league third baseman.
And, though Russell Branyan has plenty of experience – he broke into the big leagues at third – The Muscle is an adequate first baseman. Besides, a home run hitter who is hesitant to bat cleanup is a guy whose head might not tolerate midseason cluttering.
General manager Jack Zduriencik appears willing to move Jose Lopez from second base to third, with Chris Woodward and Ronnie Cedeño filling the middle infield spots in the absence of injured shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. But Lopez has played third base for all of five games, and his small-sample fielding percentage – two errors in 13 chances, or .846 – rates him a only a tick above the .842 recorded by Piano Legs Hickman in 1900.
Zduriencik also could assign the role of replacing Beltre to Woodward, whose eight-year big league career includes 66 games as a third baseman.
Here’s a better idea: Go outside for help. The prevailing question about the Mariners is whether they ought to be buyers or sellers before the July 31 interleague trade deadline. Why not be both?
Seattle has a surplus of pitchers; Philadelphia has a paucity of pitchers. The Mariners’ Miguel Batista, who can start in a pinch and work long or short relief, could be key in acquiring Greg Dobbs, a utility man for the Phillies with the polish and wherewithal to give the Mariners an expert temp at third base.
In normal circumstances, Batista’s contract – he’s still owed about $4 million from a $25 million deal – wouldn’t be easy to move, but these aren’t normal circumstances for the Phillies, who are screaming for arms.
As for Dobbs, you might remember him as a former Mariners prospect whose long-term status with the team was imperiled by the simultaneous acquisitions of Beltre and Richie Sexson. Picked up off the waiver wire by the Phillies, he led the N.L. last season with 21 pinch hits.
Dobbs collected a World Series ring in Philadelphia, then signed a two-year deal worth $2.5 million. But he’s groveling for at-bats – he’s got 74 in 58 games – and likely would jump at the chance to be put on full-time duty through August.
He bats left-handed – which is to say, he’s familiar with Safeco Field’s reputation as a haven for left-handed batters – and he’s spent time in the minors with Lopez and Betancourt. He’s a career .275 hitter who won’t try to do or be somebody he’s not.
What he is a stopgap solution. If the Mariners had a surplus of farm candidates, Dobbs wouldn’t be in this discussion. But Matt Tuiasosopo’s progress has been stunted by an elbow surgery, and beyond Tuiasosopo, there’s nobody on the horizon except Alex Liddi in the Single-A.
Liddi might be a name to file away. The native of San Remo, Italy, is attempting to become one of the first Europeans products to reach the major leagues. And though he’s hitting a ton in the offensively charged California League – he’s one of two players representing the Mariners organization in the annual Futures Game during the All-Star break – it should be noted he recently played in a game that found his High Desert team scoring 18 runs … and losing by 15.
Liddi, in any case, is as far away from Safeco Field as he is from San Remo, and he’s more than 5,600 miles away from San Remo.
Why are third basemen so hard to find? It’s a hybrid position. The ideal third baseman has the power of a corner outfielder and the agility of a shortstop – and, oh, he’s required to make a longer throw, usually off balance.
Still, the Mariners’ desperation is downright cruel, considering how the Puget Sound traditionally has been a hotbed of third basemen. There’s Ron Santo (Franklin High School in Seattle), Mike Blowers (Bethel) and, of course, Mount Tahoma’s Ron Cey, among five Tacoma-born players to have logged at least one big-league game at third base. (The others: Jeff Conine, Steve Lyons, Toby Hall and Cap Peterson.)
Local connections are not a requirement. The Mariners just need somebody to be there who’s been there before. They need somebody who can be counted on to make the routine plays, and maybe a few that qualify as extraordinary.
Greg Dobbs? His future in Seattle might be as unsettled as his past, but for a couple of months, while the Mariners figure out where this goofy division race is going, he could be more than just another warm body on the hot corner.
He could be the answer.