Chone Figgins is ready to improve upon last season

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PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) -- Chone Figgins is putting in extra work this spring after a rough first season with the Seattle Mariners.

It appears to be paying off.

The veteran infielder has been taking a lot of groundballs at third base, shortstop and second base.

His fielding isn't what will likely put Figgins in the spotlight in Seattle, though. He is expected to start the season as the Mariners' new leadoff man, succeeding Ichiro Suzuki, who held the spot for 11 seasons.

Suzuki will hit third in manager Eric Wedge's batting order. Figgins, who batted .188 in 81 games last season, doesn't see his new role as a fresh start for an underachieving player. The difference for him is that he's back from a hip flexor injury that cost him the last two months of last season.

"I'm healthy this year," Figgins said after being the last player off the practice fields Monday. "Healthy, and being able to get back out here and play baseball like I can. It's not so much about the leadoff spot, it's about, you know, I had a rough year with injuries and stuff and now I'm back healthy."

Early indications are that Figgins' plate discipline and patience have improved. Two intrasquad games are a long way from the regular season, but in those two games Figgins, batting leadoff, has walked three times in five plate appearances, scored three runs and drove in one. His first at-bat last Friday resulted in a 10-pitch walk.

Figgins, often a leadoff man with the Angels, walked a career high 101 times with Los Angeles in 2009, the season before he signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the Mariners as a free agent. He's struggled overall offensively since.

"He had his greatest success in the big leagues in the leadoff spot," Wedge said. "He understood the role and what we're looking for from that spot. He's had a tough couple of years, it's my job to try and put these guys in the best position to succeed. I feel like that's where it is for him. If he can lead off for us like I believe he can, and get on base and score runs, that's what we're looking for."

Wedge seeks to put the best lineup he can on the field, and to that end, talked with his staff and general manager Jack Zduriencik about moving Suzuki down in the order and giving Figgins every shot to earn the leadoff spot.

"It's about one through nine. If you look at the impact he (Suzuki) could have in the middle of our lineup, it's greater than the impact he could have at the top of our lineup," Wedge said. "It's that simple. If we can get a Chone Figgins going, it has a tremendous impact."

Figgins, who gets a look at shortstop in Tuesday's intrasquad game after the first two at third base, isn't looking at 2012 as a bounce-back year, though it's hard to see it as otherwise.

"It's just, I'm ready to play," he said.

NOTES: The Mariners will play intrasquad games Tuesday and Wednesday, with starting pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Jason Vargas -- both projected to be in the starting rotation -- scheduled to pitch. Iwakuma is scheduled for two innings, Vargas three. . The Mariners agreed to contracts with 18 players Monday -- RHPs Blake Beavan, Steve Delabar, Lucas Luetge, Hector Noesi, Mauricio Robles and Yoervis Medina; LHP Chance Ruffin; Cs John Jaso, Jesus Montero and Adam Moore; INFs Alex Liddi, Francisco Martinez, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak and Carlos Triunfel and OFs Carlos Peguero, Johermyn Chavez and Chih-Hsien-Chiang. The team has six players remaining to be signed, and all players on the 40-man roster will be signed or renewed by March 2, according to the club.