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December 5, 2009 at 11:24 AM

Chone Figgins deal should only be the start for Mariners

Now that a four-year, $36-million deal between the Mariners and Chone Figgins is all-but-wrapped-up, I’d say the team has improved substantially over where it was 24 hours ago. The Mariners get the best third base glove on the market to replace Adrian Beltre and also jumpstart their anemic on-base percentage numbers by bringing in a guy who logged .395 last season and led the league in walks.
But the Mariners still need to do more on offense.
As much as I’ve come to respect Dave Cameron at USS Mariner over the years, I have to disagree with the conclusions he put forward last night once it became apparent the Figgins deal would get done. I agree with Cameron that Figgins was a good acquisition for this club, for all of the reasons he mentioned.
But then Cameron goes on to say that the template the Mariners are now using could be compared to the 1985 pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals, a team I saw play firsthand several times that year when they visited Montreal. And yes, they were a fun team to watch. That Cards team employed gap-hitting, basepath speed and “small ball” tactics to manufacture runs without hitting the ball over the fence a ton.
And to emulate them would not be a terrible thing if you’re the Mariners. But they aren’t there yet. In fact, they’re at least two power bats away from emulating the Cards of 25 years ago.
Now, get this straight. Power does not automatically mean home run power. It means guys who can legitimately slug .500 or better. Preferably in the mid-to-higher .500 range but the Mariners would settle for .500. The whole argument about power equating to home runs is rather outdated, since you can produce an OPS equivalent to the top home run hitters simply by getting on base a lot and hitting enough balls to the gaps.
The 1985 Cardinals offense had two things going for them:
1. The best OBP in the league.
2. The sixth-best slugging percentage of 12 NL teams
Combining the two gave the Cards the best OPS in the NL that season. Give a team the best OPS and stellar pitching and defense and it’s tough not to win. The Cards may have only had the league’s second-worst home run total, but they were fourth best in doubles and No. 1 in triples, hence, their slugging percentage was high enough to offset the lack of home run power.
Here’s what the 2009 Mariners had:
1. The worst OBP in the league
2. The second-worst slugging percentage of 14 AL teams
So, if the Mariners are trying to emulate the 1985 Cards, they took a big step forward in OBP with Figgins. But they still have a long way to go when it comes to getting their slugging percentage to the middle of the pack.
How far? Well, I’d say at least two bats that can legitimately be counted on to slug .500 or better. Let me explain further.
Photo Credit: AP

Those Cardinals from 1985 had two guys who slugged .500, Willie McGee and Jack Clark. Of the two, Clark was the home run hitter, McGee the gap-hitting speedster. They slugged .503 and .502 respectively, so, it wasn’t all that much above the .400 ranks, but let’s keep things in perspective.
The average slugging percentage in the NL that season was only .374, so they were both roughly 125 points beyond that.
Nowadays, being 125 points above the slugging norm in the AL would give you a slugging percentage of roughly .550. This year’s league-leading slugger, Joe Mauer, was not that far off at .587, so that gives you an idea of how much slugging power those two Cards, McGee and Clark, brought to their team’s table. Combined with the stellar OBP of both McGee and Clark, they were left with an OPS+ of 147 for McGee and 149 for Clark.
Those are serious power-hitting numbers. The exact same OPS+ totals brought to the New York Yankees this past season by Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira respectively.
So, make no mistake, the 1985 Cards had extra-base power in their lineup relative to the teams they played against. It doesn’t matter if that OPS was generated by home runs, doubles or triples. At the end of the day, they delivered the OPS numbers of some of the top hitters in the game.
The Mariners did not have similar power in 2009. And they have even less of it now, since Russell Branyan became a free agent. Branyan was the only Mariners regular with a .500 slugging percentage, checking in at .520. The second-best slugger on the team was Ichiro at .465. Jose Lopez was at .463.
In terms of OPS+, Branyan was at 128 and Ichiro at 127. Lopez and Franklin Gutierrez were right around average for the league at 102 and 103 respectively. So, nothing even close to what Clark and McGee gave the Cards and now missing Branyan to-boot.
As I said at the very beginning, the acquisition of Figgins and his .395 OBP gives the Mariners a serious boost in their ability to get on base. But his .393 slugging percentage won’t do much in that category for the league’s second worst team. And in terms of OBP, the Mariners are still not close to being the AL’s best, the way the 1985 Cards were in their league, so they can’t count on OBP totally carrying a lineup devoid of power.
The Mariners now have their table-setters, Figgins and Ichiro, at the top of the order. What they are missing are the middle-of-the-order guys to wipe the table clean. Bringing Branyan back could take care of some of that and present an improvement over 2009. But will it be enough for this team to contend? I’d feel a lot better with that other mid-order bat. Hey, if Ichiro could put up an .867 OPS once again next season, he could be a legit No. 3 hitter. But I doubt that’s what the team plans to do. If so, another legit mid-800s OPS type for the middle of the order — assuming Branyan comes back — is still needed.
And if he gets that OPS with a .400 OBP and .450 slugging, I’ll shut up. But there just aren’t too many guys like that around. Hence the need for slugging ability.
So, if we’re going to make comparisons with the template of the 1985 Cards, this was a good start, but only part of the equation. Personally, I think the M’s are modelling themselves more after the 2007 Angels, if this is the extent of what they do. That playoff team was only 9th of 14 in slugging, but had the third-highest OBP. Combined with pitching and defense, it enabled the Angels to stave off a pitching-deprived, surprising Mariners team that year to win the division.
The only .500 slugger on that team was Vladimir Guerrero at .547. But his .950 OPS that year blows away anything the 2009 M’s brought to the table. Garrett Anderson was also close at .494 in slugging for a nice 1-2 punch in the middle of the order. That team, because of high OBP, also had four guys with an OPS of .800 or more, compared to the one guy currently on the M’s roster.
So, the M’s still have work to do. And while they can try to do it without home run power, it’s going to be tough to do it without going after slugging power. Doing it with “minimal power” and mere speed and mostly slap-hitting is going to be next to impossible. Whether they want to be the 1985 Cards, the 2007 Angels or a 2010 Mariners team the history books will remember beyond September.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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