Infield experiment awaits resolution
Will Lopez remain at third while Figgins mans second?
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The Mariners have two weeks left in Arizona. They have two weeks to decide if the most significant alteration of their defensive alignment will be taken with them to the season opener April 5 in Oakland or left in the desert.
By moving Jose Lopez from second base to third and switching their new infielder, Chone Figgins, from third to second, the Mariners are trying to get better at catching the ball up the middle while seeing if Lopez, who hit 25 home runs and drove in 96 runs last year, might fit better at the hot corner.
And while manager Don Wakamatsu on Monday morning wouldn't reveal if the experiment will stick for the long haul, Lopez was still starting at third in the club's 13th game of the Cactus League schedule.
"He's enjoying himself and learning something new," Wakamatsu said of Lopez. "He has had some great sessions with [third-base coach] Mike [Brumley].
"I like what I've seen. I have seen some mistakes. D-day is not as critical because we believe that switching back is not that big of deal for either of them. I think the challenge is making the right decision, and I don't know if I can put a date on that right now. I want to continue to see them play."
It's an interesting strategy for the Mariners to explore.
While playing third base last year for the Angels, Figgins was ranked by the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) system as the second-best fielding third baseman in the American League and third in all of baseball. UZR, according to FanGraphs.com, where the statistics are published, quantifies "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity."
UZR, to which the Mariners front office pays great attention, gets to this number by combining range runs, which are "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity," and error runs, defined as "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by the number of errors he makes as compared to an average fielder at that position given the same distribution of balls in play." Added to standard UZRs are the UZR/150 numbers, or "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games."
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Figgins came up in the Minor Leagues as a second baseman but hasn't played there regularly in years. But he is athletic and versatile enough to have played all three outfield positions, third, second and shortstop during his career.
Lopez, meanwhile, was ranked fifth in UZR in the AL and 10th in the Majors, but the Mariners like his arm strength and body type for third base, and Lopez has responded.
"I think both of them are enjoying what they are doing, and that's what gives you hope that these guys will continue to work hard, but you also need that as a confidence factor," Wakamatsu said. "I see Figgy making a diving play, or turn a double play, and he's starting to build that belief system that he can be as comfortable at second as he is at third."
Mariners first baseman Casey Kotchman played with Figgins in Anaheim and said he has no doubt that Figgins is already feeling comfortable at second base.
"He's athletic enough to really do whatever he wants in the infield, but it's more than that with Figgy," Kotchman said. "The thing that makes him so successful moving around like he has is that he makes a conscious effort to adapt well to each position. From Day 1, he brings all his gloves and just plays wherever they tell him to play.
"He never complains. He just gets the job done and gives them the flexibility to do a lot of good things for a team."
Lopez has approached third base with the same attitude, according to Brumley.
"I think he's starting to get a feel for using his lower half a little bit more," Brumley said. "He's working hard at it and that has been really good. I think he's going to be fine there. It's a good fit, I think he is getting more comfortable with it and actually think he's to where he likes it.
"He comes out every morning in early workouts and wants to take extra balls after games. He applies himself. I think any time a guy applies himself with some energy, you can tell in body language that he is enjoying it and he's made a couple of plays that shows he's moving a lot better. I like what he's doing."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.