In Chone Figgins, M’s Kill Two Birds With One Stone

Let’s get one thing straight. This isn’t a done deal. Yet.

We all remember how close the Mariners have come to signing other free agents over the years (Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero, Omar Vizquel, to name three), only to have the deals fall through at the 11th hour. So let’s not assume this thing is all locked up, at least not until the papers have been signed.

While sources have confirmed that the M’s and Figgins are very close on what appears to be a four-year deal worth around $35-36 million, the Los Angeles Angels still remain in the hunt to re-sign their starting third baseman.

However, for all accounts and purposes, it appears the Mariners are set to take two big steps forward in their push for a 2010 AL West title: they will make their team better, and weaken their primary divisional opponent.

Even though Figgins is one of the lesser-heralded third baseman in the game, he has been one of the Angels’ keys to success over most of the past decade. At 5’9″ tall and 155 pounds, Figgins isn’t your typical corner infielder. He more closely resembles a center fielder or second baseman, two positions he’s played in the past.

But don’t expect to see Figgins at either of those spots in Safeco Field. While he began his career as a utility player — in eight professional seasons, the Florida native has seen time at second base, third base, shortstop, left field, center field, right field, and designated hitter — Figgins has been employed almost exclusively at the hot corner in the past few years.

A speedy, switch-hitting leadoff man, Figgins has posted a career batting line that would have to make the Mariners think twice about keeping Ichiro atop their order: .291 AVG, .363 OBP, .751 OPS, 596 R (career-high 114 in ’09), 280 SB (career-high 62 in ’05), and perhaps most importantly, 412 BB, including a career-high 101 in ’09. If nothing else, Don Wakamatsu and the Mariners’ coaching staff would have to at least consider moving Ichiro to the two- or three-hole.

While Figgins’ imminent signing is an intra-division coup and a boon to a struggling offense, it doesn’t address the M’s most significant need: a middle-of-the-order power bat. Suddenly, with Figgins and Ichiro, the team has an imposing pair of table-setters that will pressure any opposing defense at the game’s outset. However, it remains to be seen who the tandem will be setting the table for. Will it be Russell Branyan? Jason Bay? Someone else entirely?

Even with Figgins on board, and the Angels suffering because of it, the Mariners have a host of other questions to answer before they can feel confident within a strong division.

Still, though, you have to appreciate what this organization is doing to take the next step from a winning season to a contending season. Approaching a quality free agent that won’t break the bank and will fit nicely within the team’s plans is a great start. Over the next few weeks, with baseball’s winter meetings upcoming, the M’s need to finish piecing together their puzzle for 2010.

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