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February 22, 2012 at 8:45 AM

Chone Figgins taking all the heat off of Ichiro as Mariners go in bold new direction

ADDITIONAL NOTE 9:32 a.m.: Multiple reports, beginning with one at, are now stating that David Aardsma signed with the Yankees. Aardsma won’t pitch until second half, if at all this year following Tommy John surgery.
We’ve all heard the stories about how, in many a pro sports locker room, you’ll have a veteran player or two who takes the heat off younger teammates by taking on all the media questions and deflecting blame.
Right now, inadvertently or not, the same thing is going on with Chone Figgins and Ichiro. In fact, if the Mariners planned things this way, they’d be accused of brilliance.
But no matter whether this was all part of some elaborate plan or not, the end result is that Figgins is taking on most of the fan ire, worry, heat and focus over yesterday’s lineup switch while the guy who really ought to be getting the most attention — Ichiro — has been left largely pressure-free.
Think about it. The Mariners have left it an open-ended question as to whether Figgins will keep his leadoff spot, seeming to imply that he’s on a short leash and had better perform or else they won’t put up with any more feeble-hitting nonsense.
Meanwhile, Ichiro has been proclaimed as the No. 3 hitter this season no matter what.
Which is all fine and good, except that, of the pair, the least likely to succeed at his new role may not be Figgins.

When you look at it, Figgins has succeeded as a leadoff hitter in the majors before. He was actually real good at it.
Ichiro has never tried to be a No. 3 hitter in the majors before. And no, Japan is not the majors.
Figgins doesn’t have to change his style and approach to be successful in his new role. He merely has to keep taking walks and banging out singles and using his speed as he has in the past, as recently as the second half of 2010 in fact. Even with a terrible start in 2010, Figgins still posted a .340 on-base-percentage for the year, which would be a big improvement for the Mariners in the leadoff spot compared to Ichiro’s .310 of last season.
Ichiro, on the other hand, does have to change his style in a big way. He has already done this with a wider batting stance and an altered swing path — clearly designed to help him drive the ball better. The fact is, we don’t know how successful this will be because he’s never tried to do it before to this degree.
So, of the two, who is most likely to fail? The 34-year-old doing what he always has, or the 38-year-old trying something very different?
That’s why, even though a majority of the focus and negative attention has been on Figgins, the guy this can really blow up on is actually Ichiro.
And if that happens, it could be problematic for this team.
After all, if Figgins fails, you punt him to the side and maybe stick Dustin Ackley in at leadoff and put Franklin Gutierrez or somebody else in at No. 2. You can live with average production at the top of the order and Ackley could probably give you that in the short-term.
If Ichiro fails, what then? Then, you’re stuck with him in the heart of the order. And this team, bad as the offense has been, really can’t afford to have an infield-singles-hitting guy in the middle of the lineup. Can’t afford a ground-ball double-play machine. No, the Mariners truly need Ichiro to get back to being a line drive, extra-bases type of hitter he was earlier in his career before…before…before he stopped being able to do that.
Because the reality is, with Ichiro’s current skillset, he’d be a No. 8 or No. 9 hitter on any other big league team. The Mariners have chosen not to go that route with Ichiro, largely for political and not baseball reasons.
They do not want to risk alienating another franchise icon and longtime veteran by demoting him all the way down to the bottom of the lineup. Even though that’s where his most recent production levels dictate he should probably be.
Sure, the Mariners have talked about making Ichiro a No. 3 hitter before. But he was a much different hitter back then. A younger and more productive hitter than he was his most recent season. Ichiro last year had the worst slugging percentage of any full-time right fielder in baseball and the Mariners are now sticking him in the middle of the order.
Think about it.
So, what happens if this No. 3 stuff doesn’t work out? And there’s a pretty good chance it won’t. Do the Mariners simply leave Ichiro in there all season long, take their lumps until his contract runs out and risk another season in which they score fewer than 600 runs because they can’t drive anybody in?
Or, do they give Ichiro a month or two, then bounce him further down the order and deal with any fallout after that? We’ll see. Ichiro has said he’ll do whatever’s best for the team and those words could actually be put to the test a lot sooner than anyone is really talking about.
The good news for the Mariners is, they don’t have to worry about any of this just yet. Though, as we saw with the Ken Griffey Jr. fiasco in 2010, there had better be a Plan B.
But for now, nobody is talking about this. All of the worry and negative focus has been on Figgins.
And that works out just fine for Ichiro because there is somebody else to take the heat. Even though, with Ichiro, there appears to be a much greater chance of something going terribly wrong with potentially much bigger impact on the rest of the ballclub.
Good thing the Mariners have Figgins. He’s finally providing the type of distraction they truly need.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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