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That the Mariners signed Chone Figgins as a free agent Tuesday certainly wasn’t a surprise. The story had long broken that Figgins was on the verge of signing a four-year, $36 million contract with a club option for 2014. However, the interesting part of the formal announcement that came during the second day of the winter meetings was that Figgins wouldn’t necessarily play third base. That sets the Mariners up to make any number of potential moves between now and the beginning of next season.

“We’ve signed him as an infielder,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “Beyond that, we’re leaving it open-ended at this point.”

Figgins was primarily a third baseman with the Angels the past three seasons, but he has also played second base, shortstop, and all three outfield positions during his eight-year career. The only spot on the Mariners’ infield that is set is shortstop, as Jack Wilson was re-signed to a two-year, $10 million contract last month before he could file for free agency. First baseman Russell Branyan and third baseman Adrian Beltre are free agents, and second baseman Jose Lopez could be on the move.

The Mariners could keep Figgins at third base, or they could play him at second base and move Lopez to one of the infield corners. Branyan turned down a one-year contract offer last month and is seeking a multi-year deal. Beltre is also looking for a long-term contract, but the Mariners would prefer to bring him back on a one-year deal.

“We’ll have options,” Zduriencik said. “We have talked about the possibility of Chone playing a few positions. I think that when we roll into spring training, that picture will be a little clearer. He will be in our infield. Where he will play is yet to be determined.””

The Mariners have been building their team around pitching, defense, and speed since Zduriencik replaced Bill Bavasi following the 2008 season. The formula worked last season; the Mariners made a 24-game improvement, going from 61-101 to 85-77.

Figgins certainly fits what Zduriencik has been doing, as he led the Angels with a 7.2 WARP2 last season, sparked by a +27 in FRAA (all-time flavor). He hit .298/.395/.393 with five home runs and 43 stolen bases in 67 attempts.

“He gives our ballclub speed, on-base percentage, a guy who can run and bunt,” Zduriencik said. “We are very excited to have him, having played against Chone in our division for the last several years and seeing him up close and personal. He’s a nice fit to the club. It brings us an athlete, someone with versatility, and someone we think has the character and makeup to fit in very nicely with our ballclub.”

The deal also takes him away from the division-rival Angels, who have won three straight American League West titles and five of the last six, though Zduriencik said that was not the Mariners’ motivation. “It’s dangerous if you start trying to make moves to hurt other clubs, because those other clubs can also make moves that hurt you just as much or even trump your move,” Zduriencik said. “We did this to help the Mariners, not hurt the Angels.”

The Mariners are certainly set up to make more moves this winter, as they have financial flexibility with the salaries of Beltre ($12 million), left-hander Jarrod Washburn ($10.3 million), right-hander Miguel Batista ($9 million), catcher Kenji Johjima ($8 million), and left-hander Erik Bedard ($7.75 million) coming off the books. The Mariners plan to continue being major players in free agency, as they been pursuing right-hander John Lackey and left fielder Jason Bay.

Lackey has spent his entire career with the Angels. He and Bay are reportedly the Mariners’ top free-agent targets. If everything falls right, the Mariners could have the best offseason of any team in the major leagues. “I think it’s a credit to Jack,” manager Don Wakamatsu said of the Mariners being in position to significantly upgrade. “That goes with work. He’s out there looking under every stone. We’re going to be involved in a lot of different deals. He did it last year, so it doesn’t surprise me but I’m extremely happy to be a part of that.”

The Cardinals finalized their one-year, $7.5 million contract with free-agent right-hander Brad Penny, likely signaling that they will not re-sign right-hander Joel Pineiro. In his age-31 season, Penny was a combined 11-9 with a 4.88 ERA in 30 starts with the Red Sox and Giants last season, notching a 2.9 SNLVAR. However, he finished strong with the Giants following his release by the Red Sox, going 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA and a 1.8 SNLVAR in six starts. Penny is likely to slot into the rotation behind Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Kyle Lohse.

“When he came up to the Marlins (in 2000), he was a guy that came on the radar for (pitching coach) Dave Duncan and myself from day one,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “When I saw that he might be moved by the Marlins, we were interested, and since then he’s gone a couple places. We were always trying to make what happened today happen. We just like all he brings to a team as far as getting guys out.”

The biggest transaction of the day did not involve a player. Longtime baseball writer and analyst Peter Gammons announcing that he would leave ESPN when the meetings end tomorrow to join the MLB Network and MLB.com. Gammons will provide analysis on the cable network and write regular columns on the website. He had been with ESPN since it acquired rights to televise MLB games in 1990.

“After 40 years of covering baseball, the opportunity to move on to MLB Network is a great and daunting opportunity,” Gammons said. “My journalistic life has revolved around baseball, and to be involved with people whose network is devoted to baseball and baseball only is something I look forward to with excitement.”

The New York Daily News‘ Bill Madden was elected the 2010 winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He will be honored with the award that is presented annually to a sports writer for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing” during the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum induction ceremony July 25 in Cooperstown. Madden joined the Daily News in 1978 after nine years at United Press International. Also considered for the award were the Toronto Sun‘s Bob Elliott and retired Boston writer Joe Giuliotti.


MLB Rumors and Rumblings:
The Bay sweepstakes appears to be a three-team race with the Red Sox also trying to sign him, though they are his third choice behind the Mariners and Angels. … If the Red Sox fail to sign Bay, they are expected to vigorously pursue a trade for Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. … The White Sox and Angels have interest in signing free-agent designated hitter Hideki Matsui, whose return to the Yankees is in question. … The Blue Jays continue to pursue a trade for Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit, but Pittsburgh is likely wait until next season to make a move in the hopes that his value is higher. … The Pirates are also expected to sign infielder Bobby Crosby as a free agent today. … The Cubs are working on ridding themselves of Milton Bradley in a potential three-way trade that would see the right fielder go to the Rays while Tampa Bay would send designated hitter Pat Burrell to the Blue Jays; Chicago would get low-level prospects. … The Indians are shopping closer Kerry Wood, but are getting minimal interest in response. … The Brewers are hoping to know today whether free-agent left-hander Randy Wolf accepts their three-year, $31 million offer, and are also thought to be close to signing lefty Mark Mulder. … The Nationals would like to sign free-agent right-hander Vicente Padilla, who might return to the Dodgers at the right price. … The Orioles are interested in Pineiro, left-hander Erik Bedard, and third baseman Pedro Feliz as free agents, and are also exploring a trade for Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. … Catcher Yorvit Torrealba is likely to re-sign with the Rockies, though the Mets and Giants are still in the picture. The Rockies also have interest in free-agent utilityman Robb Quinlan.