Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"The Kid" Isn't a Kid Anymore

Just yesterday, reported that the Seattle Mariners have signed Ken Griffey, Jr. to a one-year deal worth $2 million, with incentives that could make it worth as much as $4.5 million. The deal got good reviews from many reporters and columnists. As for me, it sent me off on a nostalgia trip.
A trip back to a simpler time. Back when my Braves were still lovable losers. Back when none of us had ever heard of a place called Iraq. Back when collecting baseball cards was still a young boy's hobby.

... 1989 ...

(Cue Paula Abdul ... or something a little more macho)

Back in my baseball card-collecting days, 1989 was a landmark year. Together with my Dad and my brother, we made it our duty to gather as many complete sets as possible. We came close, getting all but the new and expensive Upper Deck series.
Man, it's hard to believe that was 20 years ago. I still like to look back through the cards at times, especially 1989. Back in 1989, you could see a "Future Stars" card with Gary Sheffield pictured right next to Mike Harkey. It's always interesting to look at the ones who made it and the ones who didn't. It seems like everything was possible back then.
But there was one guy back in '89 who was too big to be considered just a rookie. He was a phenom who was supposed to arrive in the majors ready to play and ready to star. And his was the card you wanted to get, because you knew some day it would be worth a lot of money.
That phenom was Ken Griffey, Jr. He would prove to be just as good as everybody predicted, and he would help transform one of the worst franchises in baseball into a perennial contender in just a few years.
Yes, Griffey was quite something then. But that was a long time ago. Both Griffey and the Mariners are in very different places now. As good as it will feel to see Griffey in an M's uniform again, is bringing him back a good baseball decision?
Back to 2009.

(Cue ... whatever it is the kids listen to these days ...)

Just like Paula Abdul, the past 20 years have been hard on Ken Griffey, Jr. (Okay, so it's not exactly like Paula Abdul; not unless Griffey's a whole lot crazier than he looks in public). Griffey lived up to his promise in Seattle, but after signing a free agent contract with Cincinnati in 2000, his career hit the skids.

It started off well enough; he played in 145 games in 2000 and hit .271 to go with 40 HR and a .556 SLG (slugging percentage). But injuries to his knee and leg starting hitting him in 2001 and kept him off the field for most of the next four seasons. Griffey played well when he was healthy, but from 2001-2004, he averaged just 79 games a year. Plus, the injuries took a huge toll on his defense in center field and ended his days as a stolen-base threat. It looked like Griffey's career may have been tragically stopped in its tracks.
But Griffey rebounded to play 128 games in 2005, hitting .301 with 35 HR and a .576 SLG. He had an off year in 2006, but again worked through it and bounced back to have another solid year in 2007 (even though his declining defense had prompted a move to right field).
Still looking for that elusive World Series ring, Griffey accepted a trade to the White Sox in mid-2008. Miscast as a starting center fielder, he didn't fare well (.260 with just 3 HR in 41 games played). The Sox made the postseason, but lost to the Rays in the first round.
Now Griffey, age 39, will return to the city where it all started. Is it a good move for Griffey?

Probably so.

Is it a good move for the Mariners?

Probably not.

(Cut the music)

It would be a great story for Griffey to make a triumphant return to Seattle. It would make for a storybook ending to a Hall-of-Fame career. Unfortunately, Griffey just doesn't fit what Seattle needs right now.
If Griffey can hit like he did last season (.249 with 18 HR and a .353 on-base percentage with the Reds and White Sox), then he can certainly be valuable. But the truth is that his defense has gotten the point where he can barely handle the outfield corners and is better suited for DH. And the problem there is that the Mariners already have several guys who can play outfield and DH, and most of them are better and/or younger than Griffey.
Where does Griffey fit? Ichiro Suzuki is guaranteed a spot in the outfield, so that just leaves two spots open. One spot needs to go to young Wladimir Balentien. Balentien had a terrible year in 2008, but at age 24, he's still a top prospect. And unlike Griffey, he will be a part of the next winning Seattle team, and that probably won't happen in Griffey's time.

That leaves one outfield spot open. It should probably go to Franklin Gutierrez, whose defense is so good in center that he will probably push Ichiro back to right field. Gutierrez isn't the hitter Griffey is, but with his glove he makes up the difference. The Mariners could platoon Griffey and Gutierrez in center field. This would be great, since Griffey hits much better against righties. But it would also mean that Griffey would get most of the playing time (since most pitchers are righties). And if the Mariners want a platoon partner for Gutierrez, they've already got one in Endy Chavez, who would be much less of a defensive liability than Junior.
Well, what about DH? There's a spot that was created for guys who don't fit into the defense. Well, there's a problem here, too, one entirely of Seattle's doing. The Mariners' top prospect, Jeff Clement, needs to get a starting job and a lot of playing time to keep developing. He, like Balentien, is one of the building blocks for the future. Clement is usually a catcher, but the Seattle front office screwed up the whole situation when they re-signed incumbent catcher Kenji Johjima to a 3-year, $24 million contract extension. This despite the fact that Johjima is going to be 33 this year (old for a catcher) and hit an empty .227 in 2008. With no place to put Johjima but at catcher, this makes Clement the de facto DH and leaves Griffey on the bench. The only hope is that one of these guys ends up at first base, which is a team weakness, or that the team admits its mistake and releases Johjima. (The latter is unlikely, because teams usually wait at least a year before dumping their boneheaded contracts).
Well, so what if Griffey ends up on the bench? He'd be a fine pinch-hitter, he would spend less time in the field, and the extra rest would be good for him, right? The problem is that a) Griffey probably doesn't want to be a pinch hitter, b) if the fans buy a ticket to see Griffey, they want to make sure they're actually going to see him, and c) $2.5-$4.5 million is a lot to pay for just 200 at bats — especially with the salary market being what it is.
My fear is not so much that Griffey won't get enough playing time. My fear is that he will, and it will come at the expense of rising stars like Balentien and Clement. The pressure from the public to play Griffey will be immense, and the team may end up sacrificing their long-term goals just to give Ken Griffey one last go-round. And that would undermine a lot of the good work done this off-season by new GM Jack Zduriencik, who has focused on making the team younger and making rebuilding the club's top priority.

So which will it be? Will the team give Griffey his spot as a part-timer or bench player and risk the fan outcry? Or will they force him into the lineup and put nostalgia ahead of the team's future?
I prefer the former, but fear the latter. Griffey still has something to offer on a big-league diamond, but not as an everyday center fielder. Not anymore. If Seattle wanted a big bat to fill the outfield/DH role, they could have gotten someone better than Griffey without spending a whole lot more. Griffey's contract won't pay for itself — as some people claim — because as much as Griffey is being touted as a gate attraction, fans want to see winners much more than they want to see stars. In fact, the best choice might have been not to spend significant money on any aging player who will be long gone by the time the team starts winning again. Nostalgia trips in baseball are overrated. (Ask the Braves how that Tom Glavine reunion tour is workin' out for 'em.)

But whatever ends up happening, we shouldn't cry for Griffey. It would be great to choose how you get to go out, sure. But he'll always have the past. And in six or seven years, he'll have a nice plaque on the wall in Cooperstown to comfort him.
(Cue "Glory Days" by Bruce Springsteen ... )

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