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The first official game of Spring Training hasn’t even taken place, and the Mariners have already announced the first roster shake up. Chone Figgins will bat lead-off, with Ichiro transitioning to the three hole. Of course, the move itself has been met with multifarious reactions, but in this case, I’m less about reactions and more about potential solutions. If moving Figgins back to lead-off revitalizes the competitive fires within his being, then alright; Eric Wedge, you sir, will look like a genius. A more likely scenario, however, involves Figgins stringing together another unacceptable season below the Mendoza line. In which case, the Mariners will have to begin looking for another solution–a replacement.
Historically, third base has been a near impossible position from which to create offensive value for Seattle. Jeff Cirillo, Scott Spiezio, Jose Lopez, Justin Leone, Matt Tuiasosopo, and Chone Figgins are just a few of the disastrous figures that have worn the sullen badge of a Mariner third baseman over the course of this decade. Even the “good ones” such as Adrian Beltre and Edgar Martinez have some shroud of negativity branded in our memory, such as a bat poorly catered for the confines of SafeCo field or a prospect called up too late and forced out of the position by bad knees*. In fact, you can count the number of serviceable third basemen that have played in the Pacific Northwest on one hand. You’ll only need a couple of fingers for that–now put your hand down. So when the Figgins lead-off experiment doesn’t work, what then? The Mariners need a cornerstone at third base. The time for band-aids is far behind us. Luckily for Seattle, the organization has some flexibility; both in house and through the trade market. The organization has a few internal options. Let’s explore them first. In order of most likely to least likely:
1. Alex Liddi
Alex has had a pretty bad go of it lately. After being released from two teams in the winter leagues this off-season due to poor performance, he reported to camp expecting to compete for third base only to find himself taking grounders at first due to an over crowded depth chart. Nonetheless, in a situation in which the team looks to find a replacement for Figgins, Liddi is a likely candidate to be first in line. Liddi has problems – let’s not kid ourselves. On his good day you could categorize his defense as average, and while his power potentially plays above average at the hot corner, his strike outs are extremely alarming. In my opinion, Liddi is more of a patch job than a solution, though the team seems to like him, and he doesn’t come without a few pluses. Liddi isn’t my first choice, but the organization could do worse.
There are plenty who doubt that Catricala can stick it at third base. However, Catricala admitted to becoming lazy in regards to his defense in order to help focus on punishing baseballs; a habit he intends to change. Catricala has the tools to become one of the most exciting players to man the position since Adrian Beltre. Unfortunately, he probably falls behind Liddi on the depth chart, though a strong showing in AAA could make it hard for the organization to keep him out of the bigs for long. Catricala sports a powerful line-drive swing coupled with a polished approach at the plate. On a worrisome note, his minor league BABIP is likely unsustainable. While he isn’t necessarily lumbering around the base paths, his .374 and .389 BABIP the past two seasons are unsustainable even for a true burner (see Ichiro’s career BABIP of .351). Catricala is an exciting prospect and it’s hard to argue with his potential. But the best part is that he’s interesting, and really at this point what more can you ask for?
Almost a forgotten prospect in the era of Jack Zduriencik, Triunfel has all but fallen off every top 10 prospect list around the baseball world. It feels as though Triunfel has been around forever, so it’s hard to believe that this former can’t-miss prospect turns just 22 today; still very much a baby in the eyes of baseball. Seattle is still waiting for the power to cultivate for Carlos, but his other skills are already present and closer to major league ready. If transitioned to the hot corner, Carlos would already have one of the better arms in the league to go with above average range. Bottom line: Carlos does not yet have the offensive prowess to be successful in the majors. He would have to display an impressive performance down at AAA in order to move up this list. As it stands now, the only way he is making the team ahead of Liddi or Catricala is in the event of injury.
An argument could be made for Francisco Martinez, but it is one that I would quickly dismiss. Martinez has already been handled poorly by the Tigers organization and was rushed through their system. He is an unfinished product and his game lacks polish. Martinez holds an abundance of talent and untapped potential, but he isn’t nearly ready. Kyle Seager is another option to be considered, but his skill set is better suited for a utility role. While he might take over on a short term basis, Seager is not capable of producing enough value to hold down the position as an everyday player. With that said, let’s take a look at some external options that could be or become available in 2012.
While he does not come without his flaws (hello strikeouts), Reynolds can bring rain to a city whose only real drought has been power. Reynolds has averaged 36 dingers a season matched with a staggering 217 strikeouts. Folks are also less than enamored by his defense. Reynolds is a one dimensional player, but he happens to be very good at his dimension. You know what to expect with this guy. He’ll hit a ton of home runs and doubles, and he’ll also rack up a ton of strike outs. Reynolds doesn’t fit the bill of a long term option for the Mariners, but he can hold down the fort until one of the names above is ready. Even with all his faults, Reynolds has never put together a negative WAR season, and in the minds of many, that is enough to justify Seattle taking a look.
2. Martin Prado
Prado was available this winter, but an unreasonable asking price from Atlanta ended up blockading any deal from taking place. In order for the Mariners – or any team for that matter – to get involved, the price is going to have to drop significantly. Prado has quietly been a very good player over in the National League, stacking up a career WAR of 7.5 over 6 seasons. Prado contributes by playing multiple defensive positions and offering above average offense. Essentially, he’s a super utility player that the Mariners would use at solely at 3B. Prado’s versatility makes him an even more attractive option because once Catricala or Martinez or someone else is ready to be the third baseman of the future, then Prado can be moved somewhere else on the diamond without effecting his value. If the price does indeed come down, don’t expect Seattle to be the only team interested.
3. David Wright
Wright has quietly strung together 8 years of solid, dependable, above average baseball. Over the course his career he has averaged 27 home runs, 41 doubles, a .380 OBP, and a .508 SLG. Oh yeah, and he is a pretty outstanding defender as well. Wright is your complete third base package, and even with a few signs of decline, he isn’t going to come at any discount. So the argument can be made that Wright isn’t exactly a fit for Seattle, seeing how the organization is rebuilding, and the acquisition of Wright blocks prospects such as Catricala and Liddi. I completely understand that point of view and I can even agree with it. Wright would have to come at the right price and likely with a contract extension. Wright is your prototypical long shot. This really only becomes a fathomable option if the Mariners find themselves in the unlikely position of contention.
I had hoped to include Pablo Sandoval on this list, but unfortunately for Mariner fans… he signed an extension with San Fransisco this off-season. I don’t want to seem so negative before the season even starts. It’s spring! Hope is eternal! Everyone has the same record! Yay! But that’s not me. It is an analysts job to determine what lay beneath the surface. Be proactive, be predictive. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Chone Figgins doesn’t play good baseball next season. It should however surprise a large portion of the fan base if he does. Chone Figgins is likely done as an everyday player. If this line-up re-alignment some how unearths the buried talent within our incumbent third basemen, I’ll eat crow. I don’t mind. For now, here are some realistic options in case it doesn’t work out. These are names you’ll likely see again as the season progresses.
* I am in no way attempting to put a damper on the Hall of Fame career of Edgar Martinez. Gar is one of my favorite baseball players and the best DH of all time.