Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Kid

If I remember right, the very first baseball game I ever went to was when my grandpa took me to see the Bellingham Mariners. They were a single-A farm team for Seattle. I don't remember much of what happened at that game. We sat on the steel bleachers eating peanuts and my grandpa spent the game explaining to me what was happening and how the game was played, but he also talked a lot about this "Kid" that had been playing outfield for Bellingham earlier in the spring. He said this 18 year old right out of high school was dominating on the field and in the batters box. He said, "He'll be in the Major leagues soon, and he's going to be a superstar". Grandpa was right and for the next ten years all the baseball fans in Seattle and across the country were thrilled by a Kid who seemed destined for the Hall of Fame. Needless to say, the announcement that Ken Griffey Jr. will return to the Mariners this season has made me giddy as a school boy again!

No one will argue that Griffey has enviable career numbers, though his tenure in Cincinnati was less productive--certainly due to the significant injuries that hampered his performance. Some will look at the decline in his statistical production and consider his age (39) and say that signing with Seattle is a dumb move-- that he's going to decline even further and it'll rob playing time of younger up and coming players. While that's very possible, I'd argue that there's a good chance he can provide a good contribution to the team this year.

With the departure of Raul Ibanez, the team needs some power hitting in the middle of the line up. Of course, last year Jr. only hit 18 homers slugging a moderate .424 (which might not be Hall of Fame power, but only three hitters on the M's last year did better), and considering the standard decline of power hitters, that could be discouraging. On the other hand, we've come to learn that he had been playing with some discomfort in his knee again and that it has been rehabilitated in the off season. A lot of your musclebound power hitters (and juicers) use upper body strength to smash the ball, but Griffey has always relied on what we call "the sweet swing", and that starts in the legs. With a healthy knee, we can probably count on better HR production. It was only two years ago when he hit 30 homers. It'll also help to be playing in Safeco, where a short right field fence lends itself well to a lefty who can pull the ball. Also to consider is that where Griffey struggles the most is against lefty pitchers (he only hit .202 last year against LHP)-- his line against RHP is much better. If we can effectively platoon him in the DH/LF positions, you can expect his numbers to be better. The Cubs were able to do this effectively last year with Jim Edmonds (another aging former star). After a miserable start with the Padres (hitting .178) he was let go, but then the Cubs picked him up and Lou Pinnella played him against righties and Edmonds slugged .521 against them. Sometimes these old guys pull together one last big season late in their career, lets not assume Griffey can't do the same. Its unlikely to be an All-Star caliber season, maybe he'll hit a .270/.360/.460 line with 20 dingers; which is decent enough in its own right and when you consider the kind of hitters we put out there last year (Vidro, Sexson, Cairo, Wlad Balenetein)-- Griffey will at the very least be a wash, most likely an upgrade.

What about defense? Can he play the outfield anymore? Its obvious age and injury has taken a toll on his legs, so many people prefer to see Griffey solely in the DH role. I might argue that "range" isn't everything when it comes to playing outfield. Griffey didn't hit real great for the White Sox last year, but surprisingly one great play in the outfield helped the Sox squeak into the playoffs. With a 1-0 lead in the one game playoff against the Twins, Griffey threw a strike to A.J. Pierzinksi from the outfield to stop a third base runner from tagging up and scoring at home. All that to say, throwing accuracy should count for something in the outfield inspite of limited range. We have Endy Chavez slated to play LF right now. He's allegedly an amazing defender but a pretty mediocre hitter. The M's would do well to utilize him in late-inning substitutions on any day that Griffey plays OF. Griffey won't be terrible in the outfield, but the risk of injury says he should stick to DH as much as possible.

Finally, there are the "intangibles" of having Griffey back in Seattle. 2009 is a rebuilding year, we've got a lot of new young players to develop. Griffey has experience and leadership. He's a positive presence in the clubhouse. Younger players will benefit from his mentorship. Its also no secret there was a lot of discord in the clubhouse last year. Griffey is an affable and sensible player. His presence might help smooth things out a bit so focus can be put back on winning games and less on passing blame.

So the Kid might be a bit of an old man now, but after a miserable year of Seattle sports (the M's losing 101 games, the Seahawks settling at the bottom of the NFC west, the disappearance of the Sonics from the face of the earth), Griffey is a breath of fresh air. One of the greatest athletes to play in the city from one of the most exciting eras of sports in the city. Welcome back, #24.


at said...

i was glad to hear that he's heading back to seattle. though i'm a die-hard twins fan, i do like the m's too and "the kid" as you call him has always been fun to watch. here's hoping seattle has a much better season!

Tall Pants said...

Amen and amen.