As Geoff wrote in his blog today, Ken Griffey Jr. has become a hot-button issue among Seattle fans and in the blogosphere. There seems to be a growing sense (or fear) that he is done as a productive player.
As someone who prominently advocated for the Mariners to re-sign Griffey, I thought it appropriate to weigh in. First of all, I truly believe that Griffey has earned a different standard of judgment than anyone else on the team; perhaps anyone else in baseball. He is, after all, Ken Griffey Jr., an all-time great player, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and the greatest Mariner player of them all. That means something. You don’t just dump him like Brad Wilkerson because he had a bad April. In fact, I sincerely believe that there are no circumstances under which the Mariners will, or should, “dump” Ken Griffey Jr. He has earned that right – the right to go out with some dignity if and when the time comes. In other words, it will have to be a conclusion he comes to.
Has the time come? I don’t think so. I really don’t. But that doesn’t mean I think Griffey has earned a free pass to stay in the Mariner lineup, no matter how overmatched he looks at the plate. When I wrote the column saying the Mariners should sign Griffey, I was thinking that he would have a secondary role on the team. Remember, it was still early November, and the entire free-agent field was still out there for the taking. I assumed the Mariners would still look to sign a power bat at the DH or outfield position – a Vlad Guerrero or Jason Bay. Instead, the only addition at a position that would potentially affect Griffey’s status as the primary left-handed DH was Milton Bradley. Griffey was essentially unchallenged in spring training.
Right now, manager Don Wakamatsu has few alternatives on the roster to playing Griffey at DH on a semi-regular basis. He could move Bradley to full-time DH, but then who plays left field regularly? Eric Byrnes, who is hitting .111? Matt Tuiasosopo? He could give Mike Sweeney an extended shot at being the every-day DH, something Geoff has advocated. Or the Mariners could dip into the minors, where the best option for left-handed DH currently appears to be Mike Carp, who is hitting .242/.329/.484 with four homers and nine RBI. You have the hefty sluggers, Brad Nelson and Tommy Everidge, but Nelson has a calf injury and Everidge has 0 homers in 55 at-bats). As a left-field option, you have a struggling Michael Saunders (.157, 0 extra-base-hits), and also Ryan Langerhans (.241, .734 OPS, great glove in left). The final option would be for Jack Zduriencik to go out and get somebody, but few teams are ready to deal in April. Perhaps the floundering Orioles could be talked out of Luke Scott, but right now he’s struggling with a .666 OPS. There’s free agent Jermaine Dye still sitting at home, but he had a precipitous decline in the second half last year and is a defensive liability.
Now, a case could be made that any of those options would be an improvement over the current version of Griffey, who had a double on Opening Day and hasn’t had an extra-base hit since. But I guess I’m not ready to close the book on Griffey as quickly as some others. As Geoff reported yesterday, the coaches are working with him on trying to get him to use his legs more in his swing. I say give it a chance, and keep in mind that last April, Griffey hit an even .200 with a .676 OPS. (Yes, he did hit two homers last April, and his OPS now is more than 150 points lower, but still…he did start slowly and then pick it up).
Obviously, if Griffey doesn’t start producing, and soon, Wakamatsu will have to start looking seriously at alternatives (as I’m sure he already is). But remember: from the day he re-signed, Griffey made it clear he would accept a reduced role. Last year, as I said in the column, he didn’t gripe when he didn’t play center field, or play the field at all. And he didn’t gripe when he moved into a platoon at DH. And I think he would gracefully accept a transition into being a part-time player — a spot starter and pinch-hitter — if it comes to that.
I still firmly believe that Griffey, even in a much-reduced role, continues to have worth on this Seattle roster, for many of the reasons I pointed out in the original column. He is a positive influence on Milton Bradley, who needs all the positive influences he can get. He has helped bring joy back to Ichiro’s game. For those two reasons alone, Griffey is worth having around. It’s easy to mock him for being a glorified tickler and pie-thrower, but Griffey has had a huge role in improving what was a pretty morose clubhouse before he arrived. (So has Mike Sweeney, but he doesn’t have the Mariner legacy of Griffey, so it will be harder to justify keeping him around on those grounds).
I guess in sum, I’m a realist in accepting that Griffey looks like 40-year-olds look when they are nearing the end of the line. But I’m an idealist in thinking that there’s still a chance he can improve enough to be an asset, even if it’s in a reduced role. And I’m enough of a sentimentalist to say that Ken Griffey Jr., of all people, should be given the benefit of every doubt.
(Photo by Associated Press)