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Griffey, M's Hurtle Toward Nightmare End

May 10, 2010 – 5:30 PM
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John Hickey

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Ken Griffey Jr.SEATTLE -- It turns out one of the reservations the Seattle Mariners had in welcoming Ken Griffey Jr. back in 2009 was 2010.

The 2010 season, to be exact.

What would happen, Mariners insiders mused, if Griffey had just a good enough year in 2009 to want to return in 2010?

He's Ken Griffey Jr. He's a Seattle icon. In many ways, he is baseball in Seattle. The Mariners might well have packed up and left town had Griffey not led the club to respectability in the 1990s. Safeco Field, opened midseason in 1999, was designed for Griffey's swing.

Just over a month into the 2010 season, those concerns from February 2009 are being faced in the Seattle front office and the Mariners lineup.

Griffey was carried around the perimeter of Safeco Field by teammates, along with Ichiro Suzuki, on the final day of an 85-win 2009, a season that was a rousing success for a franchise that had floundered for half a decade prior.

So, yes, he wanted to return. That being the case, the Mariners wanted him back. But they wanted him back as more than a memory of the past. He hit 19 homers in 2009 and wasn't a great offensive force, but he contributed 63 RBI. He hasn't hit any homers this year. He has just five RBI and he hasn't had a hit that drove in a run since April 19.

And now, according to a blog post by the always reliable Larry LaRue in the Tacoma News Tribune, two teammates are saying that Griffey was asleep in the clubhouse during a recent game when manager Don Wakamatsu wanted to use him as a pinch-hitter.

As Mariners radio reporter Shannon Drayer points out, Griffey being asleep in the clubhouse is not unusual. He has sleep issues, and before games he's been known to sleep on the trainer's table.

What is unusual is that it happened during a game. I'm not sure that's happened before.

Either way, the sleeping is not a crime in itself, but it does reflect a disconnect between the image of Ken Griffey Jr., Hall of Fame slugger, and Ken Griffey Jr., player at the end of his career. If Griffey can't keep his head in the game, the Mariners are going to have to find a way to ease him into retirement.

And that's not going to be easy.

As it is, Griffey probably should be batting seventh in the Seattle lineup. Wakamatsu has talked with his left-handed hitting DH in general terms about moving down in the batting order so that the club could use the No. 5 spot for a more productive hitter, but there are two issues.

1. The Mariners don't want to strong-arm someone who has been such a pivotal figure in franchise history. They want him to suggest it would be the best for the team, the way Johnny Bench once went to the Reds at the end of his career in Cincinnati and said George Foster was better suited to bat cleanup than Bench was.

2. The Mariners don't have a more productive hitter. Seattle has the worst offense in the American League with every player except center fielder Franklin Gutierrez hitting below historical norms. Ichiro Suzuki joins Gutierrez in batting over .300, but he's at .273 for May, which historically has been his best month (.363).

Still, five RBI in a month isn't going to cut it for a No. 5 hitter, much less the .208 average Griffey carries. Shortstop Josh Wilson has been up less than a week and his three-run homer Sunday to help end an eight-game Seattle losing streak seems more productive than anything Griffey has done all year.

If getting Junior to move down two spots in the batting order is such a difficult task, getting him to take off his uniform and step aside would be exponentially more onerous.

Ask any scout ... and they'll tell you about Griffey's lack of bat speed. Pitchers, even mediocre ones, are throwing him fastballs that he's not catching up to. It seems that it has to be done, no matter how Herculean an effort it might be. Ask any scout who has watched the Mariners recently and they'll tell you about Griffey's lack of bat speed. Pitchers, even mediocre ones, are throwing him fastballs that he's not catching up to.

He had a big double last Wednesday, in many ways a classic Griffey shot to right-center that hopped over the fence for a ground-rule double. It would have been encouraging except that it was only his second double of the year, it was his first extra-base hit since Opening Day and it came on a changeup from Tampa Bay pitcher Matt Garza. Griffey can get around on a changeup. It's just that he's not likely to see many more of them.

In his prime, Griffey could turn on any fastball. Now almost any fastball can put him away, so pitchers generally aren't going to their second or third pitches when they face him.

The question now is how much longer will they be facing him? Given his history in Seattle, Griffey could stick around all year. He's tight with Seattle's upper management, even after forcing his way out of town in 2000. But he may well be relegated to pinch-hitting and the occasional start.

If and when Milton Bradley comes back from the restricted list -- perhaps sometime this week, but who really knows? -- he could take over as designated hitter. He's been a DH more often than not in recent years, and if Bradley is going to contribute in Seattle, it's likely that's the best spot for the switch-hitter. Michael Saunders is a young prospect, and while he struggled in Seattle in 2009 and didn't light any fires at Triple-A Tacoma in early 2010, Saunders did homer Sunday and he might be ready to fit into left field on a regular basis.

If Griffey is still the DH, Saunders won't get that chance.

The best-case scenario is that Griffey and his still-ailing knees move into a part-time role. Another option is retirement. The worst-case scenario would see the Mariners forced to release Griffey, which would have the possibility of recriminations and bitterness on both sides.

That's not what you want for someone who breathed life back into a moribund franchise last year and made Seattle a fun place to play again.

But any way you look at it, the end of Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle seems much closer at hand than it did on Opening Day.

Filed under: Sports