When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded longtime SS Jack Wilson to the Seattle Mariners in July 2009, it was considered a minor move by baseball trade deadline standards. At the time, fans had accepted the fact that the Pirates were once again in full-on rebuilding mode, and Wilson was two seasons removed from his last truly productive campaign with the Bucs. It seemed that Pirates fans were more irked by the inclusion of the once promising Ian Snell in the deal than they were by the trade of Wilson. The real kicker of the deal was that the Bucs seemed to have shipped Wilson and Snell off to Seattle for nothing, receiving four players who the Mariners were more than happy to part with – including once-time top prospect Jeff Clement.
Clement had been a first-round draft pick by Seattle in 2005, a college catcher who had broken a bunch of high school batting records during his younger days and then became one of the most celebrated player sin the Country while at USC. He was universally considered a can’t-miss prospect, a bat that experts compared to Mike Piazza and defense that made him a Johnny Bench Award Winner in 2005. The Mariners, desperate to develop position players, were tickled three shades of pink to draft Clement. Seattle had not been able to develop any legitimate Major League hitters since the days of Alex Rodriguez, and looked at Clement as the next great Mariners hitter. Unfortunately for Seattle, after hitting well at all levels of the minor leagues. Clement was never able to fulfill his promise once called up to Seattle. He debuted in 2007, playing in 19 games and batting .375 – a great start to a promising career – but once handed a job on the big league roster in 2008, he struggled mightily. He would hit .227 with just 5 home runs in 224 PA for the M’s in 2008, and was sent back to the minors. Once back at AAA, Clement raked – in 2008, his minor league statistics were off he charts – .335 BA, 14 HR and 43 RBI at AAA. He was putting up another decent AAA season in 2009 when the Pirates made the deal to acquire him.
From there, the story takes a sad turn. Clement was assigned to AAA-Indianapolis in 2009 and struggled, but that didn’t stop the Pirates from virtually handing him the first base job in 2010. He battled injuries and a lack of productivity, and struck out 37 times in just 154 PA before the Bucs had seen enough. No longer a catcher, Clement would need to improve all aspects of his game to become a major league first baseman. He showed power in that 2010 stretch, but overall he was a major disappointment to the Pirates, who thought he was ready for the big leagues. Then the real trouble started.
Clement sustained injuries that caused his 2011 season to be a complete wash. He ended up splitting time between the Pirates Rookie League team in the Gulf Coast League on an injury rehab assignment, then was placed back at Indianapolis. Overall, he was only able to accumulate 106 PA in 2011 and hit a paltry .266 with one homerun. Once the season was over, the Pirates gave up on Clement. They felt that his injuries had sapped whatever bat speed he had left and allowed the former first-round pick to become a free agent.
When Clement realized his only options were to head to Japan or resign with the Pirates as a minor-league free agent, he chose to stay stateside and continue to pursue his dreams. Healthy for the first time in three years, Clement has been a revelation in 2012 with Indianapolis. Playing exclusively at first base, he is hitting .307 with 6 homeruns and 20 RBI in 44 games. His defense has drastically improved and he seems to be on his way back to the form he showed in the minor leagues throughout 2007-2009. He even hit for the cycle in a recent game, the first time he had accomplished that feat since high school.
So does Clement have a future with the Pirates? The Bucs are still searching for a first baseman, and Matt Hague has provided a spark in his second run with the team. It seems the Pirates are convinced Hague can be the answer, and he has been granted the starting job for the current time. The Pirates have very little depth at the position throughout their system. The oft-rumored Pedro Alvarez to first base theory does not seem to be in the cards, at least not in 2012. Alvarez has struggled at the plate but his defense has improved to the point that he is considered the best defensive third baseman in the organization. If Hague were to sustain an injury or become unproductive, Clement would seem to be next in line for the call to Pittsburgh. Then it becomes a question of whether his new approach to hitting can work at the major league level – Clement is no longer a power hitter, sacrificing his long swing for a shorter, contact-based approach that thus far has worked.
The Pirates are sitting just 3.0 games out in the N.L. Central and with the new dual wild card playoff format are well within what could be considered a contender this season. The offense has shown signs of life, but first base continues to be a spot where the team lacks productivity. Could Clement end up being the man to provide the spark the team needs in the middle of the lineup? Could he be left at Indianapolis to build on his early success and perhaps be wielded as a trade chip in July? It seems that the story of Jeff Clement is not over. Perhaps by the end of 2012, we will all look back on that 2009 deal with Seattle and say that the Pirates truly won the balance of talent that fateful July day. No matter what happens over the next few months, one thing is certain: Jeff Clement has worked hard to continue pursuing his dream of being a major league ballplayer, and only time will tell if he is able to fulfill all of that promise he showed years ago.
You can follow Jeff Snedden on Twitter @jeffsnedden
Be sure to keep up to date with all the latest on the Pittsburgh Pirates and RumBunter by liking our Facebook page.