Mariners fans know Chone Figgins well. He’s a utility man on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a guy the Mariners fans assume the team would have coveted this offseason, though the recent trade for Bill Hall seems to have calmed that notion.
Figgins is also a free agent at the end of the season.
The team now has three guys who can legitimately combine to back up any position on the field that isn’t catcher or pitcher: Hall, Ryan Langerhans and Jack Hannahan.
Each is pretty decent at one position at least. Both Hall and Hannahan figure to make up a righty-lefty platoon at third base next season, and each could feasibly cover shortstop or second base were an injury to occur. Likewise, Langerhans plays a solid outfield, and could play every day defensively at any position in the outfield.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Figgins, or rather another utility man is off the Mariners radar.
Unlike most utility guys, Figgins intrigue comes more from his offensive prowess than his defense. His defense is adequate, but far from great, but his value comes as a rare third baseman that leads off.
He also walks a lot, something not typically associated with slap-hitting leadoff hitters, or scrappy utility infielders. He’s walked 76 times this year, despite only 32 extra base hits.
But versatility with offensive prowess comes at a higher price tag as the league begins to shift into statistically driven scouting and personnel management.
Figgins will probably command something like a four year, $40 million contract in the offseason. He’ll be 32 years old, and has lost a step or two since stealing 62 bases, hitting 10 triples, and scoring 113 runs in 2005.
Also, the Angels may drive the price tag for Figgins up in order to keep him away from a division rival.
There is however, a cheaper option out there.
In many ways Willie Harris is the anti-Russell-Branyan. He’s six inches shorter than Branyan, and per questionable media guide listings on both players weights, Harris is 20 lbs lighter. Harris doesn’t possess a ton of power, while Branyan’s game is almost all power.
However, in terms of low-risk acquisitions that make a ton of sense, they may as well be twins.
Harris was once an anticipated prospect for the Orioles, but after 25 big league plate appearances, he was traded to the White Sox for Chris Singleton, who two years prior had finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.
In Chicago he bounced around the field, playing multiple positions. He eventually bounced his way out of Chicago.
He signed as a free agent with Boston, where he played 47 games, mainly as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement, and after being designated for assignment mid-season, he found himself unemployed again.
He’d posted a .236/.306/.292 line to that point in his career.
And then things started to turn around.
Harris posted a .270/.349/.392 season in 2007, in 371 plate appearance, second-most in his career to that point. He started most of the year, and played the outfield almost exclusively.
The vast improvement wasn’t enough for a return invitation, but was good enough to get a look from the Washington Nationals, his fifth team.
In Washington he posted a .251/.344/.417 line in 2008, again starting most of his games. After hitting seven homeruns in parts of seven seasons, he hit 14 last year in 424 plate appearances.
Then this year, between acquisitions of Adam Dunn and later Nyjer Morgan, Harris was once again relegated to the bench. He’s posted a .218/.346/.355 line in 256 plate appearances this season, his worst statistical season in three years.
But in nearly half of his games (47 of 99), he’s entered the game as a substitute, typically a pinch hitter.
Harris has played six positions in his career. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) proponents will notice that he’s got a positive or neutral rating at five of six positions. However, he’s played less than 100 innings at third base, shortstop, and in right field.
His only negative position, second base, is the position by which he originally made the big leagues. He’s posted a -1.3 UZR/150 there, compared to Jose Lopez’s 0.2 UZR/150, not a huge difference.
On offense however, Harris is pretty interesting.
For years Mariners fans, front office members, and media have been waiting for Lopez to “get it.” Well, since being designated for assignment by the Red Sox, it appears that Harris may have “gotten it.”
Since then he’s boosted his numbers to .251/.346/.396.
But in each season, not unlike most major leaguers, he’s performed much better as a starter than a substitute.
And even much of his disastrous 2009 can be attributed to bad luck.
Despite a .255 BABIP this season (league average is .298), he’s improved his line drive percentage, walk percentage, and strikeout percentage almost annually since being demoted.
He’s hitting offspeed pitches better, and has improved his home run percentage also.
But as Dave Cameron pointed out in a fascinating article about Jose Lopez earlier this week, not all homeruns are created equal.
The crux of the article is that while homeruns display the result of power, homerun distant is a better indicator of future power.
The article points out that Lopez hasn’t hit a homerun to the opposite field all season, or a homerun farther than 400 feet.
This is a chart of Harris’ 14 homeruns in 2008.
Notably, three of Harris’ homeruns traveled more than 400 feet, one was to left field, one to dead center, and a wider spread across the right field bleachers.
Conventional wisdom alone dictates that an everyday player should perform at a higher level than a pinch hitter.
Harris is no exception, but future return may actually be projectable for the average, non-SABR-headed fan.
American League splits this season (thus negating pitchers) show greater performance from starters compared to subs of approximate margins of: 15.6 percent for batting average, six percent for on base percentage, and 19 percent for slugging percentage.
Add in a generally unquantifiable, potential mental comfort that Harris may receive as a near everyday player as the lefty in a lefty-righty platoon (in this case at second base) and the team may see a significant offensive improvement. Lopez hits worse against righties than lefties, and has an offensive skillset that drastically contrasts the ballpark he plays in.
Guys who walk have become the equivalent to a “doubles hitter” in the 1990s or a “stolen base threat” in the 1980s.
Even in a rough 2009 season, Harris has walked 14.1 percent of his plate appearances, compared to 13.9 percent for Figgins, who is walking more frequently than ever before in his career, and 3.5 percent for Lopez, who is walking at nearly the lowest rate of his career.
Harris would have to come in a trade, but makes only $1.5 million next year, the final year of a two year, $3.5 million contract.
Lopez makes $2.3 million next year, and Figgins figures to make much more than that upon signing his first free agent contract.
He's not as young as Lopez, but he's exactly five months younger than Figgins.
Additionally, while the Mariners would have to trade to acquire Harris, they’d likely have to give up a prospect of less value than the first round pick they’d surrender signing Figgins, who is a type A free agent.