Try to name the last true power hitter that the Mariners brought up through their farm system and utilized. A slugger that could be inserted into the middle of the lineup on a daily basis and forgotten about, entrusted to drive in runs with the best of his peers.
You could make the argument that Jose Lopez is a power hitter, but in reality he’s not.
You might state a case for Raul Ibanez or Bret Boone, two players who came up through the M’s system, at least initially. But they left via free agency and trade, respectively, before returning as free agent signees later in their career.
However, if your answer is Alex Rodriguez, then you’re absolutely correct.
A-Rod was the last farm system product to work his way into the middle of the M’s lineup and remain there. He made his debut fifteen years ago in 1994, and he hasn’t been with the team since 2000. All of which makes Wladimir Balentien that much more important to this franchise.
Balentien has spent the last few years being touted as the Mariners’ next big slugger.
He played his minor league ball in the shadows of Adam Jones and Jeff Clement, before essentially outlasting the two on his way to the bigs. Jones was traded to Baltimore, while Clement has yet to consistently put his skills to use above Triple-A.
Balentien made the ballclub out of spring training this year as a fourth outfielder with a seemingly undefined role. While some felt he should get a chance to play every day in Tacoma, Balentien had little left to prove in the minors. So instead he became the backup to Ichiro and Endy Chavez in the corner outfield slots.
Chavez, who started the year sizzling, has cooled down tremendously and subsequently left the door open for Balentien. Balentien, in turn has responded by performing admirably when given the chance.
In 66 at-bats this year, Balentien is batting .303, with an OBP of .347, while slugging .455. His OPS is a very respectable .802. That’s a far cry from a year ago, when Balentien notched 243 ABs, and recorded numbers of .202/.250/.342/.592.
Perhaps the biggest difference is in the outfielder’s approach. Last year he had a tendency to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, often appearing overmatched in pitcher’s counts and flailing on breaking balls.
This year, Balentien has shown an ability to take those very same pitches, while forcing pitchers to bring him fastballs before he commits. The difference is evident in his strikeouts and walks. A year ago, Balentien struck out 79 times while walking just 16. This season, he’s struck out 10 times, but as already walked five. Drastic improvement in just one year.
Beyond the numbers, the change is evident in Balentien’s demeanor and the way he goes about his business. He appears more confident both in the field and at the plate. He’s been able to drive balls the other way for hits, as he did last night against the Red Sox early in the game. He still owns prodigious power, but has displayed to everyone that he doesn’t necessarily need to rely on the longball to boost his hit count.
If his performance keeps up, Balentien will warrant a full-time starting gig within the next few weeks. The team needs his run production in the lineup desperately, and so far the slugger has proven reliable.
He may not be Alex Rodriguez, but Wladimir Balentien is well on his way to finding a home in the middle of Seattle’s lineup. And that’s great news for M’s fans.