Peter Schmuck: Guerrero shouldn't hit cleanup

June 29, 2011|By Peter Schmuck

Leave it to Orioles manager Buck Showalter to come up with the perfect word to describe marginally productive cleanup hitter Vladimir Guerrero.

"Unconventional."

It's perfect in this context, because it can be interpreted as both a compliment and a curse, depending on whether you're viewing Guerrero as a potential Hall of Famer at the end of a long and storied career or a stubborn veteran who refuses to recognize that what was once a great strength has become a great weakness.

Guerrero used to be the guy who left pitchers shaking their heads at his otherworldly hand-eye coordination. The guy once singled on a one-hop curveball by Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman, for God's sake.

Now, he's the guy who stands in the on-deck circle watching a struggling pitcher fill up the bases and then doesn't think twice about fishing for an ankle-high, first-pitch sinker that takes the pitcher off the hook and the Orioles out of a promising opportunity. It's gotten to the point where it's hard to watch.

It has also gotten to the point where Showalter needs to move him out of the cleanup spot for the good of all concerned. Maybe that's what it will take to wake Guerrero up to the joys of being one pitch ahead in the count every plate appearance, since he obviously hasn't noticed that no pitcher in his right mind ever throws him a remotely hittable pitch to start an at-bat.

Hopefully, this will not be misinterpreted as a lack of respect for Guerrero and what he has accomplished with that "unconventional" approach at the plate. He has been a tremendous asset to every team he has played for, and he is — by all accounts — a good guy who is liked and revered by his teammates. But there comes a time in every career when an aging player must recognize that he can't do the same things he did when he was in his physical prime.

No doubt, Guerrero looks back on his 29-homer, 115-RBI season with the Texas Rangers in 2010 and sees that as proof that Father Time has not yet come to collect the bill, but a closer look at that season reveals that the bulk of Guerrero's production came during an amazing offensive roll in May and June. His numbers fell precipitously after that and he struggled mightily in the postseason (1-for-14).

The Orioles were aware that his 2010 numbers were front-loaded when they gave him $8 million to beef up the heart of their batting order this year, but president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail clearly was hoping that Guerrero would repeat his first-half surge and put the team in position to trade him at midseason if the Orioles were not in position for a respectable finish.

I've got no problem with that reasoning, but — once again — it hasn't worked out as planned, and it has put Showalter in the uncomfortable position of having to decide when and how to tell a very proud, very accomplished player that he no longer belongs in the most important run-production slot in the lineup. Showalter conceded that on Tuesday, though he gave no indication when — or if — a change would be made.

"Yeah, yeah, there is [concern], but Vlady, we all know he's not conventional, and you keep trying to trust that, if there's such a thing — trusting unconventionality," Showalter said. "But if we have to make an adjustment at some point, we will. We'll see how it goes between now and the All-Star break."

Guerrero was back in the cleanup spot on Wednesday against the Cardinals, and you know that he still has some moments of brilliance in him, but he entered the game with six home runs and 28 RBIs in the final week of the mathematical first half. That's far below the diminished offensive production that created doubts about him during the second half of 2010 and left him able to command just a one-year deal after driving in 115 runs.

There are all sorts of fancy statistics that I could trot out here to show that he is not close to the incredible contact hitter he once was, but it's not really necessary. If you're a regular observer of this team and you believe your eyes, that should be enough to convince you that it's time to shake up the lineup and, just maybe, shake Guerrero out of this funk.

Showalter probably will let things be until after the Orioles travel to Atlanta this weekend for their final interleague series and hope that Guerrero perks up against the Rangers and Red Sox heading into the All-Star interlude.

I'm sure the Orioles would like to give him every opportunity to heat up ahead of the midseason trading period, but I'm not sure they can afford to wait that long.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090 AM) and WBAL.com.

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