On May 9 one year ago, the Seattle Mariners determined the Milton Bradley Project to be hopeless. Even though Bradley was due about $11 million over the final five months of his contract, general manager Jack Zduriencik had seen the future, and it didn’t include Bradley in Safeco Field.
Despite Bradley’s career-long tendency to turn the inherently joyous experience of playing baseball into an exercise in molar grinding, he was on his best behavior last spring. Mount Milton never erupted.
More to the point, it never heated up, either. Bradley was Seattle’s No. 3 batter in the season opener, but by May 9, when the Mariners designated Bradley for assignment, he was hitting .218, with two homers and 13 RBI.
Better numbers might have enticed a trading partner to take on part of Bradley’s contract in exchange for a low-level prospect, but the Mariners were denied even his minimal potential as a trading chip.
So he’s gone and largely forgotten, except for this: As we approach the one-year anniversary of Bradley’s exit, it’s fair to wonder how long it’ll be before the Mariners decide the Chone Figgins Project also is fruitless.
Figgins never has been in Bradley’s class as a stoker of controversies – who is? – but there are similarities between the two.
Each was a former All-Star who came to Seattle past his prime. Each owned albatross contracts. (Figgins’ four-year, $36 million deal doesn’t expire until after next season, which means the Mariners still are on the hook for about $16.5 million.)
Each was seen as salvageable as midseason trade bait. Each was given every opportunity to show the world he had something to offer. Each stumbled into May.
Twelve months after the Mariners decided Bradley’s presence in the lineup was impeding the progress of younger teammates, it’s apparent Figgins is in the middle of the same kind of logjam – a logjam complicated by the return of Mike Carp, whose rehab stint with the Tacoma Rainiers has concluded.
Figgins mostly has played left field this season. That’s also the position Carp will play once the Mariners are comfortable with the idea of him chasing down liners. Figgins also can play center field, but so does Michael Saunders – a better hitter than Figgins, a better fielder than Figgins, and, for what it’s worth, 9 years younger than the 34-year-old Figgins.
Figgins began the season at third base. That position now belongs to the right-handed hitting Alex Liddi and the left-handed hitting Kyle Seager, who could end up sharing third as a platoon duo.
Figgins also can play second base in an emergency. (Definition of an emergency: the 11th inning of a game that Dustin Ackley has missed because of stomach flu, and Seager is watching from the dugout after manager Eric Wedge has replaced him for a 10th-inning pinch hitter.)
A veteran switch-hitter capable of filling in for teammates at six different positions could be an asset for the Mariners. It’s not an asset worth $16.5 million through 2013, I’ll grant you, but it’s an asset just the same.
The problem is Figgins’ bat. He went 0-for-6 in the series opener Monday night at Tampa Bay, dropping his batting average to .209 and his on-base percentage to .274. That sorry OBP is critical because during spring training, Wedge suspected Figgins’ offensive struggles in Seattle were rooted in his frustrated desire to bat first.
Moving Ichiro Suzuki from leadoff man to No. 3 hitter had less to do with re-energizing Ichiro, I’m convinced, than helping Figgins find his groove at the top of the order. For a few days, Wedge’s experiment looked to be inspired: Figgins was taking pitches, working counts, getting on base with the frequency consistent of a leadoff hitter.
And even if his at-bat resulted in an out, the broadcasters often noted that it was a “good, solid at-bat.” (I’ve got this goofy notion that a good, solid at-bat produces a baserunner on first, or second, or – daring to dream here – maybe third, or even beyond. But I digress.)
Figgins equated his reclaiming of the leadoff role as a “return to home,” but his stats are suggestive of some poor soul roaming the sidewalks in search of a coins and cigarette butts. He’s got 18 hits and eight walks – 26 demonstrations of good, solid at-bats in 23 games.
In those 23 games, he has struck out 24 times.
“We’re still giving Figgins an opportunity,” Wedge said a few days ago, when asked how long the new leadoff man would lead off. “But he has to do it – simple as that. I mean, if he does, we’ll keep him there. If not, we’ll make a change.”
A change was made Tuesday. Merely a temporary change? Perhaps. But in putting together a lineup heavy with right-handed hitters against Rays lefty starter Matt Moore, Wedge preferred the left-handed Saunders to Figgins, a switch-hitter.
Saunders’ inexplicable urge to put down a bunt Monday, with the tying run on third base and one out in the top of the ninth, was enough to downgrade him to doghouse status in the manager’s office. Although Saunders earned a lecture for donating unexpected imagination to a rally threat traditionally skippered from the dugout, he didn’t sit on the bench. Chone Figgins sat on the bench.
Interpret that however you want. I interpret it as a sign Figgins’ days with the Mariners are numbered.
Oh, and Milton Bradley was released from the Mariners a little more than a year ago.