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February 6, 2012 at 8:51 AM

Leadoff spot and implications for rest of Mariners lineup

Wrote on Saturday night that the M’s were going strong after lefthanded reliever Hong Chih-Quo. Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times is now reporting he’s signed a one-year deal with the Mariners.
You’d have to be illiterate to take an extended glance at the tea leaves and come away with the impression Ichiro will be batting leadoff to start the 2012 season. The Mariners have been dropping none-too-subtle hints for a while now about moving Ichiro out of his customary No. 1 role and the implications will be felt elsewhere in the lineup.
For instance, the decision will likely make it difficult for the M’s to fulfill their stated objective of trying Franklin Gutierrez out for the No. 2 spot in the order. Gutierrez would seem a natural fit at the No. 2 position if he gets his game back to where it needs to be offensively. But barring a major development, that won’t be where Gutierrez hits.
The decision could also have an impact on whether the Mariners trot out the best 3-4-5 combination they can.
Let’s start at the very top. Other than Ichiro, the guys who best profile as leadoff hitters for the team are Dustin Ackley and Chone Figgins. But the M’s see Ackley as a hitter better suited for further on towards the heart of their below-average lineup, meaning Figgins at this point has to be considered the odds-on favorite to be leading off when the season starts.
So, who bats second?
Photo Credit: AP

Some people see Ichiro as best-suited for this role, but there are considerations that come into play with that as well. Ichiro’s unique approach and hitting style could make it difficult for the leadoff hitter if he gets on base ahead of him.
Ichiro is not known for taking pitches and that alone raises questions about whether having him bat second is the best thing.
But here’s the problem. Ichiro also doesn’t profile as the best No. 3 hitter this team could be putting out there, either. Well, he might if he transforms his game to the point where he can still flash some of that extra base power he used to. Doesn’t have to be all in the form of home runs. But pounding out singles, many of the infield variety, isn’t quite what teams expect from the middle of their order.
The Mariners would almost certainly prefer Ackley in the No. 3 spot, given how he looked in the role last season and his overall comfort in the middle of the order. They will likely begin the season with some combination of Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero in the No. 4 and 5 spots — no, they aren’t planning to break Montero in gently — and having Ackley ahead of them would provide the heart of the order they envision for years to come.
But it’s highly possible the team will instead go with Ackley in the No. 2 spot for both his pitch-taking ability and good numbers last year when down two strikes in the count. It’s not the optimal solution for a rebuilding team that would probably like to see how a Gutierrez-Ackley-Montero-Smoak No. 2-through-5 in the lineup would look going forward.
Still, it may be the best the team can do for now once Ichiro comes out of the leadoff role. The team wants Ackley further up in the order, so, either way, he’s at No. 2 or No. 3 against a righty when the season opens. And Gutierrez is much further back.
The only other alternative for getting Gutierrez up to No. 2 would be to drop Ichiro down to No. 8 or No. 9 and I just don’t see the team taking that step. Dropping Ichiro out of the leadoff spot is one thing. Relegating him to Jack or Josh Wilson status? We’ll see whether I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t bet anything valuable on that happening.
The Mariners can switch things up when there’s a lefty on the mound, but otherwise, your primary lineup will feature Ichiro either batting second or third,
The big winner in this deal? That would be Figgins. The Mariners are determined to try to squeeze some value out of his remaining contract and that means he has to play early and often. The team can experiment with others in the leadoff role this spring but Figgins will remain the only one other than Ichiro who has enjoyed any sustained success in the No. 1 spot at the major league level.
How it all shakes out will be interesting to say the least. But after Figgins, the team will have to make a choice that probably will not be its preferred solution for who comes next. Then again, the team will already be getting its way by having Ichiro somewhere other than the leadoff spot.
At this point, they have their cake. But they don’t get to eat it, too. Not right away, in any event.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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