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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 20, 2012 at 7:09 AM

Mariners’ third baseman of the future is in camp, but who is it?

seagerthrows.jpg

(Kyle Seager makes a play in a game last September. Seattle Times photo).

Today, I’m going out to Angels camp in Tempe to check out the introductory press conference of a former third baseman (for 103 games, anyway) named Albert Pujols. Chone Figgins, of course, did so well as the Angels’ third baseman that the Mariners were enticed into giving him a four-year, $36-million contract prior to the 2010 season.

Halfway through, it’s safe to say the contract has been a disaster. And now the Mariners appear to be leaning strongly toward giving Figgins back the job as their primary third baseman, this time as the Mariners’ leadoff man, trying one more time to milk some production out of him. It’s not the way I’d go, but at least I can understand their motivation.

Still, all you have to do is look around Mariners’ camp to see that Figgins’ replacement — perhaps not far down the road — is lurking. The hard part, however, is figuring out who it’s going to be. There are four main candidates, and all have high potential upside if they develop according to form (no guarantee, of course). The present may be murky at third base, but the Mariners have as much prospect depth at the hot corner as any position except starting pitching.

Here are the four:

Kyle Seager. He had the job in the second half last year and showed some flashes of being a productive player, though ultimately his numbers were only adequate (.258/.312/.379). But it’s important to remember that Seager moved rapidly through the system, playing just 24 games at Triple-A. He hit everywhere he played, and I think he’ll hit in the majors, eventually. The Mariners are eventually going to have to think long and hard about switching Seager to second, his more natural position, and putting Dustin Ackley in the outfield, a move they are currently reluctant to make.

Vinnie Catricala. A very, very intriguing player. Just watching him in the cage, you can tell he’s a pure hitter with a lot of life in his bat. The numbers last year were staggering: a .351 average and .574 slugging percentage at High Desert, where everyone hits, and a .347 average and .632 slugging percentage at Class AA Jackson, where those stats mean more.

The question with Catricala is his defense, and there had been talk he would be viewed mainly as an outfielder moving forward. But he is being worked out at third base in camp, and I think he could really make a strong impression once the games start. I’ve watched him take a lot of ground balls the last couple of days, and he’s not a butcher out there. I’ll reserve judgment until I see him in real competition, but if he can keep hitting like he has in the minors, the Mariners will have to find a spot for Catricala, and soon.

Alex Liddi. He still has some holes in his game, offensively and defensively, but he’s getting closer. No question Liddi has the raw tools to be an impact player. With the logjam at third, Liddi is getting some work at first base. He’ll almost certainly start the year at Tacoma, but if he has another year like last (30 homers, 104 RBIs) and can cut down on his strikeouts (170 in 559 at-bats), he’s going to force the Mariners’ hand.

Francisco Martinez. He’s still a youngster, not turning 22 until Sept. 1, so it’s hard to say exactly what his upside is. Martinez came in the Fister deal with Detroit, and immediately found his way onto all the Mariners’ Top 10 prospects lists — usually about fifth or sixth, behind the three pitchers and Nick Franklin. Martinez is big (6-2, 210), but he still hasn’t found his power stroke (16 homers in 1,237 at-bats). Martinez is still a work in progress, but there’s some real potential there.

Throw in Carlos Triunfel, who many scouts still believe projects as a third baseman, and the Mariners have numerous third-base options if Figgins flames out again.

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