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May 4, 2012 at 9:17 AM

Mariners should go beyond pulling plug on just Chone Figgins experiment once ready: should look at Ichiro in leadoff spot again

Tune in at noon as I host my new weekly live print chat for the paper. We had so many questions last week that it was tough to keep up. And that was during a winning streak. Can’t imagine what it will be like today.
Earlier this week, in my Talkin’ Baseball segment for Sports Radio KJR, host Mitch Levy asked how far away we are from seeing the plug pulled on the Chone Figgins leadoff experiement. I replied that if the team’s losing streak of three games was to suddenly morph into six or seven, it would force the club’s hand. Such a streak wasn’t all that tough to envision and now, here we are at six in a row and counting.
The club could opt to give Figgins and his returned strikeouts problem one more shot this weekend against the Minnesota Twins, who might be the worst team in the majors. You can deal with problems at the leadoff spot a lot easier when the team is winning and chances are, the Mariners will be winning again once the weekend is done.
That said, the M’s might opt to ensure that they at least do win this series by making their leadoff changes right now. And who could blame them? Nobody. It’s May 4 and the team has lost six in a row. It’s no longer early.
But if the Mariners do indeed pull the plug on Figgins, they should not stop there. They should go the distance in abandoning their early season leadoff experiment, which always had two parts to it.
They should put Ichiro back in at leadoff.
Now, I don’t say this because Ichiro has suddenly turned into Rickey Henderson in terms of approach. No, it’s just that, at this point, it’s the lesser of many evils.
Ichiro has a .331 on-base percentage, which still isn’t great for a leadoff hitter and sits 38 points below his career average in that stat. Yes, he’s hitting .300 again, though, like Jose Vidro back in 2007, it’s an empty .300 filled with singles and not exactly what you need at DH (in Vidro’s case) or the middle of the order (as with Ichiro).
This team’s biggest problem in some of its recent losses hasn’t been getting runners on base. It’s driving them in. And it’s tough to do that with a middle of the order that is either struggling or miscast at the best of times.
Ichiro is hitting .192 with a .510 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) with runners in scoring position. As good as it is to see him hitting .300 again, those other numbers are not No. 3 hitter material. Not on a team needing a leadoff hitter. And not on a team again struggling to score runs.
Besides, Ichiro isn’t even the biggest problem.
When it comes to finding the next leadoff hitter — assuming Figgins will lose the job any day now — it appears that Dustin Ackley will get the first shot at replacing him.
And I’m not sure why that is.
Photo Credit: AP

The Mariners just downgraded a struggling Justin Smoak to No. 7 from No. 4 in the order under the assumption that easing the pressure would help him boost his batting numbers.
Anyone had a look at Ackley’s numbers this season?
No, they aren’t as bad as what Smoak has produced, but a .231 average and .609 OPS isn’t quite what the team envisioned out of Ackley when he was taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft back in 2009. This didn’t just start this season either. Ackley had a pretty bad September last season, hitting .219 with a .598 OPS.
So, yeah, some pitchers are figuring him out and he’s got adjustments to make. Nothing to panic about yet, but I’m not sure how thrusting Ackley into the leadoff role is going to help matters any.
Besides, does the team really see him as their leadoff man of the future?
I’ve always been under the impression he was more of a No. 2 hitter. Or even a No. 3 hitter on a team like this one. And I know the Mariners felt the same way heading into spring training. So, why start messing around with that now?
And the other problem is, if you move Ackley out of the No. 2 spot, who takes his place?
Brendan Ryan can’t hit his weight right now and he isn’t the heaviest guy.
Kyle Seager might be the best bet, though his walk rate of 2.4 percent is a concern. Still, he makes solid contact and is showing better two-strike hitting ability than Ackley so far.
Michael Saunders comes to mind as well, though he does have that knack for striking out at times and you need a guy who can put the ball in play as a No. 2 hitter. Need a guy you know will make contact when you send the runner and require a ball hit to the right side.
In the end, guys like Seager and Saunders might help this team more a lot closer to the middle of the order than up top in the second spot.
And Ackley, for all of his early struggles, still appears to profile best at being the guy to hit behind the leadoff batter.
Sometimes, making the fewest moves possible to fix one problem is the best way to go.
Rather than overhauling the majority of the lineup at once, the team might opt to go with one that leaves the majority of hitters in their familiar comfort zones.
Ichiro won’t need to re-adjust to the leadoff role. He’s done it all but one month and a few days of his big league career. And he’s hitting more like he did during his typical leadoff seasons than what a major league team needs in the middle of the order.
The Mariners won’t have Ichiro batting third if and when they’re ever ready to contend. And they likely won’t have Ackley batting leadoff. They certainly won’t have Figgins batting leadoff when this rebuild is ready to transition to something more.
So, why waste everyone’s time in the interim? Try to build for the future the way that future is actually envisioned. Start by minimizing the problem areas you’ll have to fix later on. The leadoff spot has been and will continue to be a question mark for this team well into next winter.
Let’s not create question marks at five other spots. Put Ichiro back where he was once the Figgins leadoff experiment is abandoned. Then, cross your fingers and hope the other guys figure something out.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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