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Originally published March 19, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified March 20, 2012 at 10:14 AM

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Mariners' Chone Figgins is back — in spirit, at least

Chone Figgins, who has had two disappointing seasons with the Mariners, is being given another chance, penciled in at the top of the team's batting order.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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First, I'd be very glad to see Figgins have a great year, for any number of reasons. ... MORE
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PEORIA, Ariz. — DISCLAIMER: All information provided in this column is tinged with spring-training optimism. Any words that can be construed as hopeful do not constitute a binding forecast that the subject, Chone Figgins, will have a comeback season. He could, but we know to hedge now. Because we've experienced the Figgins headache before. Although Figgins will make every reasonable effort to revive his career, the columnist presenting these words makes no guarantees of any kind. Because we've experienced the Figgins headache before. And it still hurts. But the little guy is too oddly intriguing to ignore.

Chone Figgins is doing it again. He's smiling the Figgy smile. He's talking happy, looking happy. His mood resembles the way he was during his introductory news conference two years ago, when the Mariners announced they had signed him to a four-year, $36 million deal.

We all know what has happened since. Nothing. And everything. Figgins followed a subpar first season with an awful, injury-burdened second year. He had an embarrassing public confrontation with former manager Don Wakamatsu. His mood turned surly at times. He became the baseball version of former Seahawks wide receiver Deion Branch — a high-performing winner who fell into some weird Seattle sports abyss — and we'll get back to that thought later.

But back to the festive Figgy. Despite offseason chatter that the Mariners should just give up on him, Figgins is still here, and he has a role, which he has accepted. His job: Get in where you fit in — third base, shortstop, second base, all three outfield spots. He's playing everywhere, and the leadoff spot is now his to lose.

Figgins had a slow start in Cactus League play, but he has started swinging the bat well the past week. And his attitude, a point of scrutiny during his Seattle tenure, has been great.

"He enjoys playing," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "I don't think he's too concerned with where he's playing. He just enjoys playing, and it really helps us out, the fact that he is that versatile."

I'm still not convinced that Figgins is truly back in the Mariners' fold. If they could trade him without having to swallow too much salary, they would. If he remains on the roster, it's hard to imagine he will play every day, given the intriguing young options the Mariners have at third base (Kyle Seager) and in the outfield (Mike Carp, Michael Saunders, Casper Wells).

So it's likely that the Mariners still won't get the most out of Figgins' $9 million salary this season. And after two seasons of alarming decline, it's naïve to think a 34-year-old athlete will make a dramatic turnaround. Figgins could have a rebound year, but he doesn't figure to rebound to excellence. But a serviceable Figgins could still help this ballclub.

After taking a beating mentally last year, including boos at Safeco Field, Figgins is in a good place now. He doesn't want to have a good season for the sake of proving himself to critics. He just wants to play well.

"I really don't thrive on negative stuff," Figgins said. "It's hard enough to play this game. There's no need to try to use negativity as motivation."

Figgins is most encouraged that he is healthy. He played in only 81 games last season because of both injury and ineffectiveness. He ended the season nursing a hip problem that turned out to be worse than he thought. Figgins got married in November, but he had to cut into his honeymoon to visit a doctor in New York, where he learned he had a labrum tear. He was able to rehab the hip and avoid surgery. Now, he feels right again.

Ask Figgins if he used the offseason to reflect on his struggles, and that's when his pride takes control. While he studied video and pondered improvement, Figgins was concerned more about his body.

"My main goal was to get my hip fixed," said Figgins, who hit .188 last season and .259 in 2010. "I know, if my hip is fixed, I'm going to perform."

This is his last good chance with the Mariners, so he had better perform. Thus far, his Seattle story is eerily similar to Branch's Seahawks run. Both were standout players and acclaimed winners on great teams before arriving in the Pacific Northwest. Both received fat contracts to come to Seattle and were asked to be bigger stars than they're capable. Both irritate local sports fans because of their performance and because they handled criticism poorly a few times, and it belies the fact that both are considered good teammates and quality people.

Branch couldn't live up to his deal, mostly because of injury, and in 2010, he was traded back to New England, where he inexplicably commenced being Deion Branch again. Barring a miracle, Figgins' story won't end much better. And if he went elsewhere and played better, you'd have to wonder who cursed the money local sports owners are spending.

Right now, festive Figgy is only focused on the present. Wedge is giving him a chance, and interestingly, it's the same as the initial opportunity he received. He remembers when current San Diego manager Bud Black was the pitching coach for the Los Angeles Angels, and he suggested to manager Mike Scioscia that he play Figgins all over the field. It helped start Figgins' career. Can the approach revive it?

"I consider myself just a ballplayer," Figgins said. "I'm all for it. That's how I got into the big leagues."

The super utility man grins, shares that he has learned a lot from struggling and calls last season "a bad blessing."

Well, at least he doesn't believe he's cursed.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

Flopping Figgy
Through his first eight years with the Angels, Chone Figgins put up numbers that the Mariners expected would help shore up their lineup. But in the two years since Figgins has joined the M's, he has tailed off considerably. Some major stat drops for Figgins:
Team Avg. On-base % Slugging
First 8 years with Angels .291 .363 .388
Two years with Mariners .236 .309 .285

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