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April 25, 2011 at 8:56 AM

Mariners limited in what they can do with struggling veteran regulars

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We’re now more than three weeks into the season, just about a seventh of the way home, and the number of struggling veteran bats on this Mariners team remains the same.
The Big Three in terms of futility remains Chone Figgins, Miguel Olivo and Jack Cust, with those three offering minimal returns on defense as well. Figgins continues to lead the team in Ultimate Zone Rating in an albeit small sample size. Figgins had been at +2.6, but is now down to +1.1 in UZR after a difficult week in the field. That’s the best of the lot on an M’s team that remains rated MLB’s worst at UZR, but not enough to offset the numbers he’s put up at the plate.
Of the three, Figgins remains the most plagued by bad luck at the plate. His .160 batting average comes with a 20.6 percent line drive rate that’s just off his 20.8 percent of last season. The killer remains his batting average on balls in play, which is a paltry .169 compared to .314 last year.

So, again, you keep waiting for his luck to improve. Thing is, even if it does, at this rate, you’re not looking at Figgins to outperform anything he did last year at the plate. For some, that will still constitute a disappointment, since many fans had hoped for a “rebound” year for Figgins in forecasting these Mariners as a team that could potentially come close to a .500 season.
In truth, that doesn’t appear close to happening.
Figgins is still hitting too many balls in the air and when he does that, they tend to hang up there and get caught. Last year, it took him two months to start hitting them on the ground the way he likes.
So, unless he starts doing that soon — like right about now — and gets a massive switch in luck, then at best you’re looking at another year like last.
And there isn’t much the M’s can do about it.

There have been cries from some fans for the M’s to use Adam Kennedy more often at third base in Figgins’ place. But that does not seem a move that would be in the team’s best interest.
Even fans who despise Figgins as a player would like to see him traded someplace rather than have the team eat two-plus years of an expensive contract. Well, there isn’t a team around that will trade for Figgins when he’s hitting .160 and playing just about average third base defense with nearly three years left at a contract paying $9 million per annum.
So, forget that as a “plan”. Benching Figgins for Kennedy at the moment would be just plain dumb.
The team’s best hope is to keep playing him and hope he snaps out of it. Then, you either get production from him, or at least get his numbers up to the point where you can think about trading him this year or — more realistically — next off-season. But no, he’s not about to be benched.
As for Olivo, his 22 percent line drive rate remains his best since 2003 by a wide margin. His batting average on balls in play is roughly 100 points down from last year and, consequently, so is his batting average. You have to think that balls will start to drop in for him at some point and even if you don’t, there isn’t much the team can do about it.
Chris Gimenez is hardly an everyday answer as a catcher, though maybe you give Olivo an extra day’s rest per week. I do think the team would benefit from having a more regular catcher like Josh Bard as the backup, but for now, with Franklin Gutierrez out, the club seems more comfortable with Gimenez’s versatility as an extra infielder/outfielder.
And it’s not like Bard will make much of a difference in the team’s bottom line.
Olivo needs to have his luck swing. I saw him hit one ball to center against Oakland on Friday that would have been out of many ballparks. Another hit to the track yesterday might have had a chance someplace else as well. But not at Safeco Field. The Seattle weather is not helping some of these hard-luck hitters, so we’ll have to see whether the warmer stuff in Detroit and Boston — more hitter-friendly parks — starts to swing the fortunes of both Olivo and Figgins.
Because there isn’t much there as an alternative. Not for Olivo and, as I said. for Figgins, you have too much time left on that contract to eat it without at least trying to see whether he can build any trade value.
With Cust, it’s a bit different. Unlike the other two, there are options for replacing him at least a couple of days per week. Milton Bradley is not the greatest option in left field for this team and could use some days off from the field. So, you can play Bradley at DH and alternate others in there, like Kennedy.
Cust is only under contract for one year at a reasonable amount, so it’s not like you have to build a trade market for him if he isn’t producing.
His line drive rate is way down to 15.6 percent and while his batting average on balls in play is down to .267, 120 points lower than last year, it’s not all that far down from where he was in 2008 and 2009.
Cust is struggling and it’s not all about luck.
He has to start turning things around. Brad Wilkerson struggled in similar fashion three years ago and was released after one month in a year in which the M’s hoped to contend. This is a rebuilding year, so there isn’t exactly the same urgency. But Cust won’t have forever and, as I mentioned, there are some options for replacing him.
So, of the three, he’s the most vulnerable.
But really, the team doesn’t have a whole lot of options. Other than hoping that, with warmer weather, some of its luck will change on some fronts. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be a much longer year than anyone anticipated.
NOTE: If you missed Geoff Baker Live! last Friday, we played a clip of shortstop Brendan Ryan discussing whether Justin Smoak or Adam Kennedy has the best stretch at first base. We asked Eric Wedge about Kennedy’s first base defense .
A viewer wanted to know what’s wrong with Erik Bedard. After I replied, another viewer suggested Bedard had a good strikeouts-to-walks ratio for a guy with command issues. I explained that the walks weren’t his biggest problem to arise out of the command struggles. Finally, a viewer asked me whether Wedge had lost confidence in some struggling bullpen arms. I used that question to play a clip of a pre-game exchange I had with Wedge about where he goes from here with Chris Ray.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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