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Ex-Angel Chone Figgins has changed sides, but not his game

The speedy, versatile infielder left Anaheim to sign a $36.1-million free-agent contract with Seattle, a move that can only help the Mariners in their bid to end the Angels’ reign in AL West.

March 07, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from Peoria, Ariz. — Along the dark, narrow hallway separating the clubhouse from the parking lot at the Seattle Mariners' spring training facility here, the team has hung larger-than-life pictures of its best-known players.

There's one of Ken Griffey Jr., of course, another of Ichiro Suzuki and one of 19-game winner Felix Hernandez. Closer to the door is one of the newest Mariners, Chone Figgins. And that seems appropriate since it is Figgins, as much as anyone, who is expected to guide the Mariners out of the dark depths of the American League West and into the light of the playoffs.

"Figgy cares about one thing. He cares about winning," says Seattle Manager Don Wakamatsu, who, like many on the Mariners' staff, coached the speedster at one point during Figgins' nine years in the Angels organization. "That's a great asset to have. That's part of why we wanted him so bad."

That is a big reason why Figgins came to Seattle as a free agent in December. The Mariners knew what they were getting and knew that was what they wanted.

"I'm a person that likes familiarity," Figgins said. "Sometimes players move over to different places, we're expected to do different things. To come over here, I don't have to change a thing."

Well, except for his spot in the batting order, since he'll be hitting second instead of leading off. And his position in the field, since Seattle opened the spring with Figgins at second, not third.

That's it — for now.

But as Wakamatsu is quick to note, if something else is needed, Figgins would be the first to volunteer. That, the manager suggested, is why Figgins has played in nearly twice as many postseason games as anyone else on Seattle's roster.

"When you have guys of that stature willing to do that, it kind of sends a message," Wakamatsu said. "If we want to win here, what are you willing to do?

"I've known him for a long time. I know his makeup. Presence in the clubhouse, leadership, the things he can do on and off the field were all reasons why Jack went out and targeted him right away," Wakamatsu said, referring to General Manager Jack Zduriencik.

Figgins wasn't the only player targeted. The Mariners also brought in outfielders Eric Byrnes and Milton Bradley, former Angels first baseman Casey Kotchman and 2008 Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee.

Add Griffey, center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and shortstop Jack Wilson, who all arrived last season, and Seattle figures to start only three players who were Mariners when Zduriencik was hired in October 2008 — catcher Rob Johnson, infielder Jose Lopez and Suzuki.

As a result, the Mariners are contenders to make the playoffs, which they've done only four times in the franchise's 33-year history, and are expected to battle for the division title, which they haven't won since 2001. But to get there, they'll have to go through Figgins' former team, the Angels, winners of five of the last six AL West crowns.

"I know what they're going to do and they know what I'm going to do," Figgins said. "It's going to be a huge challenge who wins the mind game."

In parts of eight seasons with the Angels, Figgins stole a franchise-record 280 bases and is in the top 10 on the club's career list in half a dozen other offensive categories, including batting average (.291), runs (596) and on-base percentage (.363). Plus, he's the only player in baseball to have stolen at least 30 bases in each of the last six seasons.

But that wasn't enough to persuade the Angels to keep him, especially since the club was out of options with his likely replacement, 25-year-old Brandon Wood.

"I think they really wanted Woody to play. And I'm happy for him," said Figgins, 32. "I had some good offers from a bunch of teams. If I was going to go somewhere new, I thought Seattle was the No. 1 choice."

The Mariners dangled a four-year, $36.1-million offer with numerous incentives, a suite on the road and a $9-million vesting option for 2014. The Angels wouldn't discuss details of their offer, though it was reported to be three years at $24 million. GM Tony Reagins would say only that it was "a significant offer, an offer that was strong."

"We wish him the best. We think he's going to do well," said Reagins, who, as manager of baseball operations, played a role in the 2001 trade that brought Figgins, then a Colorado Rockies minor leaguer, to the Angels.

"There's no hard feelings, no animosity. He's on the other side now. So we're going to do everything we can to beat him."

And Figgins is doing everything he can to make sure that doesn't happen. Which is why, after batting .298 as a leadoff hitter last season, he'll hit behind Suzuki, giving the Mariners the most dynamic 1-2 punch in baseball. And it's why, after leading AL third basemen in assists last year, he's moving to second.

Figgins called the switch to second "a work in progress." But if he can pull it off, the Mariners arguably would have the best up-the-middle defense in the majors, with Figgins, Wilson and Gutierrez.

"He's going to make us better defensively. He's going to make us better offensively. He's going to make us a lot better baserunning team," Wakamatsu said of Figgins. "Knowing the person was so critical . . . because you know this guy will do anything."

And that could mean the next thing the Mariners hang on that wall is an AL pennant.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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