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Cole Figueroa: Under the Radar

By Shawn Krest / Durham Bulls

Five Bulls have earned IL Player of the Week awards this season. Three made the IL All Star Team and another was selected for the All Star Futures Game. But the Bulls' MVP might be the small guy with an empty trophy case.

Cole Figueroa doesn't make headlines. He just does the things necessary to win games. Figueroa has started at five different positions in the field this year, including his first career starts in the outfield-both right and left. No other Bulls has played more than four different spots.

He's batted in six different spots in the order. Only Chris Gimenez and Brandon Guyer have batted in more.

In addition to his versatility, Figueroa has been remarkably consistent. He's spent most of the season right around the .300 mark, often just shy of the league's top 10 batters, which is typical for the underappreciated infielder.

Since the end of May, Figueroa's average has dipped below .285 just three times--never lower than .283, and never higher than .307. In July, Figueroa has never been below .290.

Figueroa's father Bien was a minor league manager for six seasons, and Cole shows the intelligence and instinct for the game that's typical of a coach's son.

"He's very smart," Bien told the Tampa Bay Times in spring training. "He's been on the baseball field since he was born. He works hard. He knows how to play the game. And he plays the right way."

In late April, the Bulls turned their first triple play in eight years, and it was Figueroa who triggered the play.

Figueroa told the media afterward that he had the presence of mind to step on third, then throw to second, to spark the rally-killing gem because, "Every single time somebody gets on first and second, I think triple play."

 Tampa manager Joe Maddon was impressed with Figueroa during the spring, telling the Tampa Bay Times, "I really like his mind." Figueroa suggested changes to the Rays' defensive positioning during the spring, impressing the Tampa skipper enough to make a guarantee.

"I'd only heard about this guy through the minor-league people," Maddon told the Times, "but this guy is going to play in the big leagues."

Figueroa is just as calculating at the plate. In 349 at bats this season, Figueroa has swung and missed exactly 45 times, or about once every two games. By comparison, Vince Belnome, who's been among the league leaders in walks and on-base percentage all season, has 190 swing and misses in nine fewer at bats.

2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price, who faced him in college, said that he was the toughest college hitter he faced, almost never swinging and missing.

Figueroa's 12-pitch at bat on May 16, which ended in a single, is tied for the longest Bulls at bat this season, and his 347 foul balls, which spoil pitches and extend at bats, are second only to Belnome on the team.

Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo pays Figueroa one of the highest compliments a player can get, saying on several occasions that Figueroa "plays the game the right way." He's also referred to his small infielder as "clutch."

Despite his size, Maddon compares Figueroa to David Eckstein, another undersized player who excelled in the Majors. 

With his attitude, willingness to speak up, and intelligence, there's little doubt that Figueroa will become a great coach and manager once his playing days are done. But first, if things go as expected, the Major Leagues await.

"He's the kind of guy that people sometimes are afraid to put their stamp of approval on," Maddon told the Tampa paper this spring. "He's a big-league player for me. Cole Figueroa is a very good baseball player."