BY John Hickey 02:53PM 12/01/2010

Lopez gone, not so fast with Ackley

Options for Figgins at third and Ackley at second

Jose Lopez - Seattle Mariners - 2010 - 2

Jose Lopez won't be tendered a 2011 contract by Mariners.

Now that Jose Lopez is no longer in the Mariners’ plans, what will the Seattle infield look like in 2010?

With Lopez, who will not be offered a contract by the club and will thus become a free agent, out of the equation, the easy play would be to move Chone Figgins from second base, where he had an off-season in his first year with Seattle, to third base, where he was a star with the Angels.

And that would free up the club to promote Dustin Ackley, the second pick in the 2009 draft, to the big leagues to start as a rookie. Ackley is coming off winning Arizona Fall League MVP honors after having hit .424 in the just-completed AFL season.

Like we said, those are the easy plays. It’s unlikely to work out that way, however, because the club is at the beginning of its restructuring for 2010 and not at the end.

Trades and free agent signings could quickly see the Mariners go in different directions. Figgins could move to third, but he also could stay at second or be traded. Ackley could win a promotion, but there is ample reason for the club to want to keep him in the minors, at least for a while.

One is pure baseball. Scouts who have watched Ackley, a center fielder and first baseman at North Carolina, love his potential. But he’s still learning to play second base, and while his hitting has come along well, many scouts believe he needs another 200 or even 300 at-bats at Triple-A before he’s ready for an everyday attack of Major League pitching.

And there is a purely financial reason. Under big league rules, players start accumulating time toward free agency and salary arbitration from the first day they put on a big league uniform. For that reason, clubs have become accustomed to holding off the promotion of supposed can’t-miss talent for a month of the season or more. It happened in Washington with Stephen Strasburg – the player taken ahead of Ackley in 2009 – when the Nationals held off bringing him up until June when it was clear in spring training that he was one of their 10-12 best pitchers.

By holding off, the Nationals kept Strasburg’s playing time at under a full year, meaning the Nationals still have six full years of Strasburg – who was injured and will miss the 2011 season – under their control.

If the Mariners were contenders, none of that would matter in their deals with Ackley. But they aren’t contenders, so it makes sense to hold back on Ackley’s debut so that they can have him for those theoretical seasons down the road when they are competitive.

The only thing we can know for certain for now is that the Mariners will move forward without Lopez, word coming out Wednesday that the club will not tender him a contract for the 2011 season. It was no surprise given that Seattle had already declined to pick up the $4.25 million option in his contract for next season.

As recently as 2009 Lopez hit 25 homers while playing second base for Seattle and was a vital cog in the Mariners offense. The 2010 season saw the Mariners as a whole take a tumble, and Lopez, moved to third base, was a major factor in that collapse.

Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik spent much of this off-season as he spent much of last off-season – seeing if there were any takers via trade for Lopez. There weren’t. Other clubs who might otherwise have been interested saw the Mariners’ predicament and held off, knowing it would be easy to sign Lopez on the cheap in free agency rather than to have to give up a player to Seattle in exchange for him.

Lopez had the worst full season of his career (.239, 10 homers, 58 RBIs) in 2010 and his on-base percentage of .270 was among the worst in the game.

He was better at third base defensively than at second, and first base might be his best position. But he doesn’t hit enough to be a regular first baseman – at least he doesn’t in Safeco Field. Safeco is built for left-handed hitters and the right-handed Lopez has hit all of his homers the last two seasons, all 35 of them, to left and left-center.

If he could land a gig in Fenway Park or somewhere else that is friendly to right-handed hitters, he could be a steal in the free agent market.


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