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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Will Chone Figgins run right out of Anaheim?

The Angels would love to keep their leadoff hitter, who leads the AL in runs. But his speed and versatility will make him a sought-after free agent this winter.

August 30, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus are long gone. So are David Eckstein and Darin Erstad.

Garret Anderson and Francisco Rodriguez bid farewell last year. Of the 25 men who won the World Series in 2002, the ones who turned Anaheim into a baseball town, three remain.

Scot Shields is signed through next season. John Lackey is bound for free agency, and a payday so big he'll probably play elsewhere next year.

And that leaves us with Chone Figgins, who scored one of the most memorable runs in club history. Figgins did not bat in the 2002 World Series. He was a rookie, a pinch-runner, the man who scored the tying run as the Angels furiously and dramatically erased a 5-0 deficit in Game 6.

He could run out of town this winter. On a team with a star-studded collection of potential free agents -- Lackey, Bobby Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero -- the riddle of what to do about Figgins could puzzle the Angels the most.

The issue is not whether he would come back, or whether the Angels would have him back. He would, and they would.

The issue is how the Angels and his other suitors would put a value on him. It's easy with Guerrero, for instance: Designated hitter, one or two years.

It's not so easy with Figgins.

He's probably a leadoff hitter wherever he goes, but he could be the second baseman for the Dodgers, the third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, the left fielder for the New York Mets or New York Yankees, the center fielder for the Chicago Cubs or Chicago White Sox, the right fielder for the Tampa Bay Rays, pretty much anything for the San Francisco Giants.

"What makes Figgy attractive, not only to us but to the rest of the league, is his versatility," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "His versatility is special. He's not a guy that can just play a lot of positions. He's a plus player at a lot of positions.

"That makes him a fit in a lot of situations."

It certainly makes him a fit in Anaheim, where Scioscia loves nothing more than a guy with the ability and willingness to play multiple positions. The Angels tried Figgins at shortstop, liked him in center field, loved him at second base and plugged him into a hole at third base.

He worked long and hard to develop from a natural middle infielder into an elite third baseman. He got a standing ovation at Angel Stadium last week, after fielding a sharp ground ball well beyond third base and four steps into foul territory, then unleashing a ridiculously strong throw to first base for the out. On Friday, he got another round of applause after reacting to a wayward grounder by grabbing the ball with his bare hand, then firing to first base for the out.

He put in all this work for the Angels at third base, and yet he says he would not ask to stay there as a condition of signing with the Angels.

"As long as I'm in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot and I'm on the field," he said, "it doesn't matter."

Really? You're an All-Star third baseman, and you wouldn't mind if the Angels asked you to move to second base or left field to make room for the unproven Brandon Wood?

"I've been so fortunate," Figgins said. "If I hadn't bounced around, I wouldn't be in the big leagues. For me to say I deserve to be in one position is not right."

Figgins and Abreu have ignited an Angels offense on pace to set a franchise record for runs. Figgins leads the American League in runs and is among the top 10 in walks, hits, on-base percentage and pitches per plate appearance.

As a rookie, he struck out almost twice as often as he walked. That ratio is close to 1:1 this season.

Think about it. We've gotten this deep into the story without evaluating his speed, the attribute that made him famous in 2002. He ranks third in the league in stolen bases, and "fast" might well be the adjective fans most commonly associate with him.

"Figgins is more than just a fast baseball player," Scioscia said. "He's turned into a real tough out in the batter's box. He's turned into a very good defender.

"Speed is one tool he has that is a very good tool. But he does a lot on the baseball field. I don't think that, if he would slow down a bit, his game would implode."

That could be the wild card in free agency. Figgins already is on the wrong side of 30. We can't imagine the Angels -- or any other team -- would be thrilled to sign him to a big-money contract for four or five years and then see him lose his speed after two years.

Not to worry, or so says Dan Szymborski, whose ZIPS system is one of the most highly regarded player projection tools in the sabermetric community. Those systems try to forecast performance by evaluating a player's most recent seasons as well as the development and decline of similar players at similar ages -- speedy center fielders in their early 30s, lumbering sluggers in their mid-20s, and so on.

"In Figgins' case, he has a broad range of skills," Szymborski said. "Those types of players tend to age well."

One-dimensional sluggers do not, he said. But, barring injury, he said there would be no reason to expect Figgins to slow down dramatically.

"When you're talking about a guy who's already 31 and is still a speed player, you're not going to see a sudden decline," Szymborski said. "There's no real danger he's going to become Sean Casey on the bases in the next few years."

Casey never did run off with a World Series championship ring. Figgins has one. He might earn another in October, and then he might run.

Or he might check his offers, put on the brakes and stay in Anaheim.

"If something gets worked out here, I'd be real happy," Figgins said. "I'd love to be back here, but I'm not losing sleep over it.

"I just don't worry about it. I feel I've done well enough not to worry about it."

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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