Offering conclusions based on any series with the Minnesota Twins is a dubious premise — swimmers do not become Olympians in the bath tub, after all — but it seems safe to say that the Chone Figgins matter, as a function of play on the field, is over.
Not only did Mariners manager Eric Wedge pull him from Friday’s series opener for reasons of incompetence, third base, Figgins’ primary position, is now owned by homegrown youngster Kyle Seager. Figgins’ role is now reserve (f)utility.
After hitting a home run and a two-run single in Saturday’s 7-0 triumph, Seager drove in another run with a single Sunday in the 5-2 win that gave the Mariners the series, 2-1. In the last five games, Seager has driven in 10 runs, a pace that would give him about 324 RBIs over a full season. While that may be a bit of a stretch, Seager has hit four home runs in 25 games, a seasonal pace that would bring him equal to former Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, who hit 26 and 25 home runs in his last two years in Seattle that ended in 2008.
That would be a commendable production for a 24-year-old in his first full major league season. As a converted second baseman, he’s not near Beltre’s field skills yet, but as Wedge said Sunday, Seager “is night and day” improved from his rookie season trials.
Sunday, he handled deftly two chances that showed his skills upgrade. A hard grounder full of top spin backed him up to the dreaded “tweener” bounce, but he snatched it quickly and made the throw. A couple of batters later, a chopper from a fast runner forced him to charge the ball, which he barehanded and threw a laser for the out.
“He was a little rough out there last year, but it wasn’t his fault,” Wedge said. “He just hadn’t been out there.”
An off-season meeting in Seattle with Wedge made it clear that Seager had to get stronger and quicker at the plate and in the field, and take a lot of grounders at third after spending most of his high school, college and brief minor league career at second.
“It’s a huge difference compared to last year,” hitting coach Chris Chambliss said. “You have to remember this kid has been a hitter his whole life, something like 192 hits in 140 games. That’s serious hitting. He just knows how to play — he’s a smart young hitter.”
In his last 11 games, Seager is hitting .359 with seven runs scored, three doubles, three homers and 11 of his team-leading 17 RBI. For the season, he’s at .298, same as Ichiro.
“After getting a taste last year (.258 in 182 ABs in 53 games with Seattle), I pretty much knew what I needed to do,” Seager said. “I came up here in the off-season and had a nice talk (with Wedge) and it was well communicated what he thought. We were eye-to-eye.”
Said Wedge: “He’s always been a very consistent hitter, regardless of level. He’s developing a great deal of confidence. He likes to be up there in RBI situations. He has a very good, professional approach to hitting. That’s where you want to get all your guys.”
Seager’s progress resolves third base with easily the best answer since Beltre’s departure. The flame-out of Figgins’ offense, after an early season flicker, also removes him from the outfield, where Mike Carp, who hit a home run Sunday, figures to return to left where he opened the season before spraining his right shoulder in Tokyo.
Figgins remains on the bench and on the roster at $9 million this year and next. Each passing day edges him closer to the seemingly inevitable management decision to cut him and absorb the sunk cost of his salary. But that’s a money decision. The baseball decision has been made, helped along by Seager.
There’s still much to resolve for a 13-17 team that flails in situational hitting. The Mariners still don’t know whether second baseman Dustin Ackley is suitable as Figgins’ replacement as leadoff man, or whether .153-hitting Brendan Ryan can do anything with his new role as the No. 2 in the lineup. And for that matter, whether first baseman Justin Smoak’s TV commercial with the punched-down Doug fir will be exposed as a balsa-wood manipulation.
“We have guys heading in the right direction,” Wedge said. “It’s baby steps with that.”
Not what the ticket-buying public wants to hear, but it’s true. Seager is an adult step forward, but aside from the persistent request to the American League to schedule more games with the 7-20 Twins — the Mariners are at the back of a long line on that agenda item — any other improvements will be incremental rather than incredible.
Without Figgins to kick around, it’s never much fun to pick on the kids.