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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 22, 2009 at 7:38 AM

The elephant in the room: How long can Griffey stay at cleanup?

First off, I’d rate the Ken Griffey Jr. signing as an overall success. He’s been superb clubhouse presence, worth his salary for the smile he’s brought to Ichiro alone. He’s been a good camper, doing whatever manager Don Wakamatsu has asked of him. He’s made most Mariners’ fans very happy just for the chance to watch and salute the greatest player in franchise history one more time. And for much of the season, he got on base at a pretty good clip, and jacked one out of the park every now and then.

But can a team that’s trying to win its division afford to have the lowest production in the majors, this side of the Royals, at the cleanup position? They also have the lowest production in the American League, this side of the Royals, at designated hitter.

Their cleanup hitters have a .640 OPS (on-base plus slugging), which ranks 29th in the majors, ahead of only Kansas City’s .569. Their No. 4 hitters have produced 40 runs batted in (also ahead of only the Royals’ 31). Griffey has been the No. 4 hitter for 138 of his 247 at-bats (but on a regular basis for quite a while) and is hitting .203 as a cleanup hitter, with a a .304 on-base percentage and .370 slugging percentage. He has five homers and 15 RBI hitting No. 4.

The Mariner DHs rank 13th out of 14 teams in the AL with a .695 OPS (KC is at .644). But even the Royals have produced more RBIs out of the DH spot (41) than the Mariners’ 31.

Overall, Griffey is hitting .215, with a .331 on-base percentage and .385 slugging percentage (.716 OPS). The on-base percentage still ranks fourth on the team (to Ichiro, Russ Branyan and Franklin Gutierrez), but Griffey has been struggling in July with just one homer and two RBI this month. In his last 28 games, Griffey is hitting .183 with a .627 OPS.

It could be that his knee is bothering him more than he lets on. I asked Wakamatsu yesterday about the health of Griffey’s knee.

“He doesn’t say much about it. I just think it’s there. At different points in the year when we played the National League and he had to play on the field, it got sore. It’s not as strong as he’d like it, but there’s not a lot of pain in there, either. ”

One of the things the Mariners reportedly agonized over before signing Griffey was what would happen if they had to bench, or even cut, the sainted Griffey. They didn’t want to face that dilemma, and rightly so. More than any single person, Griffey put the Mariners on the map. He’s headed to the Hall of Fame in a Mariners’ cap. They didn’t want his last chapter to be a messy one.

And it hasn’t been. But Griffey is nearly 40 years old, and he’s had major health issues for much of the past 10 seasons. He’s not what he once was. No shame in that. He’s still been an overall asset for the Mariners this season.

ESPN’s Rob Neyer, reasonably disagreeing with yesterday’s blog post about the trade deadline, points out that the Mariners could get an offensive boost by replacing Griffey at DH with Mike Carp.

Perhaps, but as Rob says, I don’t think the Mariners are willing to pull Griffey out of the lineup. I understand that.

Yet the time has come for the Mariners, fighting for their contending lives, to consider at least moving him out of the vital cleanup spot.

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