Sunday December 6th, 2009

The dominos are starting to fall at the hot corner in what has been the first significant free-agent action on this year's hot stove. First the back-to-back National League champion Phillies inked old friend Placido Polanco to a three-year, $18 million deal to replace outgoing free agent Pedro Feliz at third base. Now the Mariners have swiped the third baseman and leadoff hitter of the dominant team in their division by reaching a preliminary agreement (pending a physical) with former Angel Chone Figgins worth $36 million over four years. Those two deals leave outgoing Seattle third-sacker, Adrian Beltre, as the clear leader among the remaining free-agent third basemen and something of a must-have for the defending American League Central champion Twins, whose third-base hole is the deepest among the remaining contenders.

The Figgins signing is entirely consistent with the sort of team Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has been assembling since taking over the Mariners after the 2008 season. Starting with the three-team trade that brought center fielder Franklin Gutierrez to Seattle almost exactly a year ago and furthered with the acquisition of shortstop Jack Wilson at this year's trading deadline, Zduriencik has focused on building to his ballpark, the pitcher-friendly Safeco, by emphasizing defense above all else. Among the leaders in a league-wide trend that has been catching on since the Tampa Bay Rays surged to the 2008 American League pennant buoyed by a revamped defense, Zduriencik has exhibited an awareness that the quality of a team's pitching is far more reliant on its defense than had been generally acknowledged in recent years. A mediocre pitching staff in a offense-suppressing ballpark can be extremely effective if it is backed up by a strong defense, as was the case for this year's Mariners, who allowed the fewest runs in the American League.

Figgins and Beltre ranked second and third, respectively, in Ultimate Zone Rating among full-time American League third basemen in 2009 and were both in the top five in that category in 2008, Figgins' second season as the Angels third baseman after four years of valuable utility work. Of the two, Figgins is clearly the better choice for the Mariners because, as Zduriencik also seems keenly aware, Safeco Park is death to right-handed power hitters. At bat, Beltre, who doesn't draw many walks or hit for much average, offers little more than right-handed power. Figgins is a switch-hitter who not only hits for a bit of average (.291 career), but led the American league in walks in 2009 with 101, none of them intentional.

On its face, and certainly for 2010, the Figgins signing is an excellent one for the Mariners, but it is not without its red flags. To begin with, Figgins' league-leading walk total came out of nowhere this year. His previous career high was 65 free passes. While it's entirely possible that Figgins made meaningful and permanent gains in his plate discipline this year as the lone Angel to follow the example of the saintly patient Bobby Abreu, such performance spikes, particularly those achieved in walk years, tend to be exactly that, spikes followed by quick and equally jarring rebounds to prior levels. Seattle fans need think no further than to Beltre's 48 home runs in 2004, the season before he inked his five-year, $64 million deal with the Mariners.

Beltre hit just 103 more home runs as a Mariner (thanks in part to Safeco) and slugged just .442, but Figgins' career slugging percentage coming into Seattle is just .388. If he gives back 40 or so walks, his net offensive value will fall roughly in line with what the M's got from Beltre, only with the bulk of that value coming from on-base percentage rather than slugging. Figgins will also steal roughly 40 bases a year, but the other category in which he led the American League this year was caught stealing, his second time leading the league in that department in the last three years. Figgins was successful in just 71 percent of his steal attempts in 2009, a career low and one dangerously close to rendering his thefts moot, with the number of outs he runs into becoming as costly as the number of bags he steals is valuable. That Figgins' success rate has been declining as he has passed the age of 30 is an indication that his base stealing will either no longer be a part of his game by the final year of his new contract or will actually take away from his overall contribution to the team.

Which brings us to the largest concern about Figgins' new contract: his age. Figgins will turn 32 next month and will be 35 in the final year of his deal, which includes a vesting option that could keep Figgins in navy and teal until he's 36. Thirty-six isn't ancient for baseball players in general, but for an infielder whose game is built around speed, average, and defense, it just might be. One comparison that immediately springs to mind is Roberto Alomar, who should be among next year's Hall of Fame inductees despite the fact that he turned into a pumpkin at the age of 34.

There's not much consolation in the list of Figgins' comparable players generated by PECOTA, the performance prediction system developed for Baseball Prospectus by forecasting savant Nate Silver which predicts future performance by comparing the player in question to similar players throughout baseball history. Prior to the 2009 season, Figgins' top PECOTA comps were Don Buford, Dave Collins, Bip Roberts and a man close to Mariners fans' hearts, Harold Reynolds. The left fielder on the great Orioles teams of the late '60s and early '70s, Buford stopped hitting at 35 and promptly retired. A speedy outfielder in the '70s and '80s, Collins was finished as a full-time player at 34. Roberts was speedster who bounced between left field and second base in the '90s, but retired after his age-34 season. And Reynolds, the M's second baseman in the late '80s and early '90s, retired after his age-33 season having lost his starting job with the Angels to Damion Easley.

Speaking of the Angels, while signing Figgins may appear to accomplish two goals for the Mariners, improving their own team while weakening the dominant team in their division, they might have actually done the Angels a favor. The Angels, who play in a park that heavily favors right-handed power hitters, have former first-round pick Brandon Wood lurking as a replacement for Figgins. A right-handed hitter and former shortstop, Wood has slugged .547 with 76 home runs in Triple-A over the last three seasons (admittedly in the hitting-friendly Pacific Coast League in Salt Lake City's hitting-friendly home ballpark) while cutting down his formerly problematic strikeout rate. With Wood, who will be 25 in March, on hand to replace Figgins, the Angels can now allocate more money to re-signing John Lackey, the most important of their free agents. An Angels team with Lackey and Wood is far better than an Angels team with Figgins but not Lackey.

Should Wood fulfill his promise at the hot corner for the Halos, it could prove to be a bitter irony as the Figgins signing blocks the Mariners own third-base prospect, Matt Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo isn't a blue-chipper by any stretch and actually resembles Beltre a bit in that he's a right-handed hitter with middling power, but he's more willing to take a walk and, just as importantly is young and cheap. His defense has received mixed reviews, which might have been the deal-breaker for Zduriencik, but the Mariners aren't going to unseat the Angels without developing some position players of their own, and their opportunity to do so with Tuiasosopo just vanished. With Figgins hitting behind Ichiro Suzuki, the rare speed-and-defense player likely to retain both skills into his late thirties, the Mariners have an impressive combination in the top two spots in their lineup, but they still don't have any viable middle-of-the-order hitters to put behind them.

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