Turning our attention away from the Prince Fielder chase -- which has grown very quiet this past week or so -- for a moment, SeattleClubhouse is going to take a stab at figuring out what the club's options are for filling third base for 2012. As it stands today, the team has four third basemen on their 40-man roster in Chone Figgins, Kyle Seager and
Alex Liddi -- who all saw time in the big leagues last year -- together with touted prospect Francisco Martinez, whom the club acquired from Detroit as part of the Doug Fister trade. While Seager and Liddi both showed flashes at the plate and in the field last season, neither established themselves as the clear front-runner for the position heading into 2012. Seager's power isn't ideal and Liddi has yet to find a way to shake free of the strikeout bug. Martinez, who most feel is more talented than both as he has 20/20 potential, is likely still a year or two away from being seriously considered a 25-man option.
There are also options on the free agent market in still unsigned players like Wilson Betemit, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Jorge Cantu, all of whom will be 30 in the 2012 season. While none of that trio will demand a long-term, big money deal, they also each come with weaknesses that would likely be exposed with Seattle.
Cantu and Kouzmanoff are both right-handed hitters that offer a little bit of power and very little plate discipline. Kouzmanoff is considered an above-average defender while Cantu is below average at best in arm, range and hands at the hot corner. Kouzmanoff uses the whole field a lot more than he usually gets credit for as 48 of his 85 career home runs have been hit up the middle or the other way. He has also posted a .244/.315/.427 slash in 23 career games in Safeco Field. Small sample size, sure, but not quite the killer one would expect. That said, the 2003 sixth round pick out of UNLV has really fallen off the past two seasons, posting just a .672 OPS in 843 plate appearances, primarily with Oakland. While part of his struggles last season can be attributed to his unexplained decline in linedrive rate (20% career, just 13% in 2011) -- which, in turn, led to a .258 BAbip which was well below his .284 career mark, expecting a big bounce back from him is probably not a very safe bet.
Cantu only started nine games at third base last season, and really he is only passable there if he manages to produce at the plate. And he truly hasn't produced at the plate in an acceptable enough manner since the '09 season when he hit .289/.345/.443, driving in 100 runs while knocking out 58 extra base hits for the Marlins. He, too, has struggled mightily the past two seasons, hitting just .242/.287/.367 in 670 plate appearances while seeing his strikeout rate jump (16.0% to 18.4%) and walk rate fall (5.6% to 5.4%). BAbip looks to be the culprit for Cantu, too (down from .302 to .276 since the start of 2010), his Fangraphs page shows he has also started to swing at a lot more pitches out of the zone over the last two seasons.
Betemit has been on Mariner fans wish list as a potential cheap option in the past. And while he seems like a better fit than both of the right-handers above because he is a switch-hitter that is much stronger from the left side (.817 OPS as a LH, .684 as a RH for his career), he also has his shortcomings. He uses the whole field very well as a lefty and has hit well in the American League in the past, which neither Cantu nor Kouzmanoff can claim. But while his experience, handedness and patience (9.2% career walk rate) offer hope, his defense is below average and his strikeout rate -- 26.0% for his career and 29.3% in 2011 -- takes a lot of the shine off of his résumé.
That brings us back to the much maligned Figgins. To this point in his Mariner career, there is simply no other way to categorize his four year, $36 million dollar signing as a bust. But while he is certainly on the downside of his career and has managed to hit just .236/.309/.285 in his two years in Seattle, and just .188/.241/.243 in 81 games last season, it is still possible that he could bounce back and be a productive player for the M's.
While 2009 -- his contract year -- was easily the best season of his career, it is not as if he hadn't performed prior to that season. He was a 3.0 - 3.5 win player on average in his six full seasons in Los Angeles/Anaheim, posting a .292/.365/.390 mark over that time. The 12.2% walk rate in his last three seasons with the Angels clearly lead to a lot of his success, and while that may seem like a distant memory now, Figgins did post a 10.1% walk rate in 2010 for Seattle. He carried a .341 BAbip during that six-year stretch -- not unsustainable for a player with his skillset and approach -- but has managed just a .281 BAbip since becoming a Mariner, bottoming out at .215 last season. Not only that, but he also hit .286/.349/.339 in the second half of 2010. Great, no, but a far cry from his overall numbers the past two seasons in the Emerald City. And while his patience by itself isn't the biggest weapon, combining that with his speed on the bases and the burgeoning weapons that the Mariners have in their lineup in the likes of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp could have a very positive effect on the offense.
And while we're talking offense, let's not forget that some people have suggested that perhaps Figgins' struggles are at least partially due to him hitting outside of his comfortable, familiar leadoff position in the batting order. With the rumors of potentially taking Ichiro out of that spot, who better to fill the role than a true patient base stealer like Figgins?
On top of his potential value at the plate, Chone is also far and away the best defensive option that the club has at the position. In his final two seasons with the Angels, Figgins posted UZR ratings among the best in the league at the position. His first season with Seattle -- when a lot of people complained about his fielding -- he played second base, remember. In his half season at the position last year he performed admirably, according to the stats.
Of course, the one huge caveat here is that there is no guarantee that Figgins will still be on the roster come opening day. The Mariners would certainly be more than willing to eat a large percentage of his remaining salary if they felt they could better the club in other areas by trading him away. And if they don't find a willing trade partner it is also possible that the roster squeeze and his performance could lead the club to cut Figgins prior to Spring Training. But if he is in Seattle and healthy to start 2012, the Mariners might just surprise everyone by giving him a shot.
And Figgins might just surprise everyone by finally getting back on track.
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