Friday, September 4, 2009

The impending courtship of Chone Figgins

Chone Figgins moved all over the field for the Angels for the first three seasons of his career: He played second base, third base, shortstop and all three outfield positions at times for the perennial West Division champions. Not surprisingly, he was a pretty mediocre player at every single position.

Since the Angels made him a full-time third baseman, though, here's how his defense has progressed:

(Fielding Bible/UZR)
2007: minus-2/minus-3.8
2008: plus-8/plus-8.2
2009: plus-27*/plus-12.2
*best in the major leagues

He's particularly good at going to his left, something the Red Sox would have loved to have seen this season.

At the same time he's learned how to play third base, he's learned how to be a hitter. Check out his progression in terms of working the count:

(Pitches per plate appearance)
2006: 3.88
2007: 3.99
2008: 4.08
2009: 4.20

You know how this blog feels about the Blue Jays' Marco Scutaro, likewise an free agent this offseason who would represent an upgrade both in the field and at the plate. Figgins, though, might be just as perfect of a fit.

The Red Sox will go into this offseason with a gaping hole in left field -- presuming Jason Bay doesn't sign an extension between now and the World Series -- as well as question marks at third base and designated hitter. David Ortiz might or might not be able to contribute with the bat. Mike Lowell might or might not be able to field his position.

A team with World Series aspirations can't go into a season with question marks that critical to its success. Signing Figgins to play third base, though, would solve both issues.

The switch-hitting speedster immediately would be installed at the top of the Red Sox lineup, hitting just in front of Dustin Pedroia and bumping Jacoby Ellsbury back down behind some of the thumpers in the middle of the lineup. Lowell would play third base occasionally and play designated hitter most of the rest of the time. Ortiz would become the team's Jim Thome or Darryl Strawberry off the bench.

Figgins is no home-run hitter, but his on-base percentage over the last three seasons is .388. Only four players -- Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis, Ben Zobrist and Alex Rodriguez -- have a better on-base percentage this season than Figgins' .402.

Oh, and he's one of the best baserunners in the major leagues. He had 39 stolen bases this season and rates as a plus-34 baserunner on Bill James' scale, a tick ahead of Ellsbury and fourth-best in the major leagues.

He's swung at less than 40 percent of pitches he's seen -- including just 16.1 percent of pitches out of the strike zone -- and he makes contact just about 88 percent of the time he swings that bat.

In other words, he's Ellsbury but with Youkilis' plate discipline.

The only downside with Figgins is his age: Like Scutaro, he's on the wrong side of 30 years old. He'd also be more expensive than Scutaro simply because his stolen bases and his longer track record make him more appealing to those teams who might be swayed by traditional statistics.

Speed in particular can disappear quickly: Only four players since 1991 have stolen at least 40 bases in a season at the age of 35 or older. But it's not as if Figgins is 34 years old already -- he'll turn 32 in January -- and it's not as if he's going to be fielding many six- or seven-year offers.

A four-year deal for $40 million, a little bit more than Julio Lugo got when he signed with the Red Sox, might be a perfect fit for both sides.

But if it takes more than that, the Red Sox ought to go for it. Few teams can open up the wallet the way the Red Sox can. Two of those teams -- the Yankees and the Mets -- are locked in long-term at third base. If Theo Epstein decides Figgins is a fit for the Red Sox, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to go get him.

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