A key factor in the Reds’ success in 2012 was the signing of Ryan Ludwick, a player who was signed when his value was low, and whose production was worth a lot more than his salary. This is the first entry in a series of articles where I will look at free agents who could be acquired on the cheap and possibly provide more value than they would cost, and evaluate whether or not they could be a good addition for the Cincinnati Reds in 2013.
Chone Figgins was released earlier this week by the Seattle Mariners. Since Figgins has spent his entire career in the American League and on the west coast, a lot of Reds fans may be unfamiliar with his work. Early in his career, Figgins was an electrifying player. From 2004, his first full season with the Angels, until 2009, his final season in Anaheim, Figgins hit .292 with a .365 on base percentage. In that span, he averaged 44 steals in 59 attempts. He was a speedy player who could play third base, second base, shortstop, and all three outfield positions.
In 2005, Figgins stole a league-leading 62 bases. In 2006, he hit .330. In 2009, his last season with the Angels, he hit .298 and led the American League with 101 walks with a WAR of 7.5 as he made the All-Star team. Because of his speed, versatility, and ability to get on base, he was a highly sought-after free agent prior to the 2010 season. The Mariners signed him to a four-year, $36 million deal.
Then his production fell off a cliff.
In his first season in Seattle, Figgins was the Mariners’ starting second baseman. His batting average dipped to a career-worst .259, though he still managed to get on base at a .340 clip, and recorded 42 steals. In 2011 and 2012, however, Figgins was a complete disaster, hitting a combined .185 with a .249 OBP, and stealing just 15 bases in 22 attempts. He earned $18 million in those two seasons, despite being relegated to part-time status and playing only 147 games.
Figgins will turn 35 prior to the 2013 season, and it’s not unreasonable to assume he’s lost a step. His stolen base rate would certainly support that. With the Angels, he stole a base approximately once every 5.3 times he got on base. With the Mariners, that rate dropped to one steal per every 6.4 times on base.
On the flip side, there are a few reasons to suggest that the change of scenery may have affected Figgins, primarily due to his support in the lineup, or lack thereof. In Seattle in 2010, Russell Branyan led the team with 15 home runs. Franklin Gutierrez was second with 12. Nobody else was getting on base either. Although Ichiro hit .315, nobody with over 300 plate appearances besides Ichiro and Figgins hit over .245.
Compare that to the year prior with the Angels, when of Figgins’ teammates hit at least 15 home runs, and the of all the players with at least 300 plate appearances, the lowest batting average on the team was .250. The second-lowest batting average among those players was Mike Napoli’s .272 mark. Because of this, you could conclude that some of Figgins’ struggles might stem from a lack of protection. The Reds would certainly be able to provide more protection for Figgins than the Mariners.
Figgins has also suffered from a severe drop in his batting average on balls in play. His BABIP was .215 in 2011 and .237 in 2012, both well below his career mark of .326. This could partially be attributed to a decline in his speed, although a drop that large seems unlikely.
That being said, if the Reds sign Figgins to be an everyday player, they’ll be in trouble. As Ludwick showed last year, it’s not impossible for a player to rebound from a few dreadful seasons and produce again in his mid-30s. Granted, Figgins and Ludwick are entirely different players, and power hitters generally age better than short, speedy type players.
I think if the Reds were to sign Figgins, the absolute worst-case scenario would be that he is a slight upgrade over Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez. Like Valdez, Figgins is a skilled bunter. Like the two of them, he is capable of playing several positions. He would be a better base runner than either of them, however, he draws a lot of walks, and he has shown in the past that he is capable of putting up All-Star numbers. At worst, he could be a bench upgrade over the two of them combined while saving another spot on the bench for someone else. At best, if he were to somehow bounce back out of his current nose dive, he could be a serviceable lead-off hitter.
Best of all, because he was released by Seattle, the Reds would be able to sign him for league minimum while the Mariners pay the remainder of the $8 million he is owed. In other words, he would cost the Reds $480K, or about half of what the Reds paid either Valdez or Cairo last season.
There are certainly better options out there, but none would be cheaper than Figgins. While I know one writer on our staff would be opposed to the move, it could be worth a shot.