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February 5, 2009

Prospectus Today

Last Call for an Icon

by Joe Sheehan

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Near the end of yesterday's ESPNews spot, Bram Weinstein asked me about Ken Griffey Jr.'s future. It wasn't a surprise-I usually get the segment topics in advance-but I was still caught off guard a bit. We'd been talking about guys like Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu, productive hitters who are likely to be above-average players, even stars, in 2009, and whose expected performance warrants eight-figure salaries for multiple seasons.

That's not who Griffey is any longer. He's certainly more famous than that group, save for perhaps Ramirez, and more popular than all three combined. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and deservedly so, for a career in which he provided great value to a number of winning teams, while serving as the face of the game for much of the 1990s. If he was never rated properly by the mainstream-his defense was always more reputation than performance-that doesn't take away from what he did do, the awards he won, and the fans he made. It's not entirely out of place to suggest that Griffey is the reason that the Seattle Mariners still exist today.

With all that said, it's hard to see how Griffey can still contribute to a winning team. He's 39 years old, and he pays the outfield like it, with negative defensive value in Clay's system in every season since 2000. A move to right field in 2007 kept Griffey from being one of the worst defenders in the game, but he remains a below-average outfielder due to the complete loss of his speed. I'm reminded of a comment Bill James made in one of The Baseball Books in the early 1990s, when he mentioned that Griffey, just 20 or 21 at the time, was heavy-legged and would lose his speed at a young age. Well, since 2000, his age-30 season, Griffey has a total of five triples and 11 stolen bases in eight seasons. He has two triples and six steals (all in 2006) in the last five campaigns. He's just not contributing in the field or on the bases.

(It's interesting to note that Barry Bonds, whose absence from the game last year was in part blamed on his loss of speed, stole 14 bases in 15 attempts during that same five-year period, including eight without a caught stealing in 2006 and 2007 combined.)

Of course, the three players mentioned above have their problems with those parts of the game as well. The difference is that they have been outhitting Griffey for a while, and project to do so again in 2009 by a large amount. By EqA:


           2006   2007   2008   2009
Ramirez    .340   .297   .344   .316
Dunn       .283   .304   .300   .308
Abreu      .307   .287   .291   .293

Griffey    .261   .288   .267   .272

There are 16 numbers in that chart, and if you ranked them, Griffey would have slots 11, 14, 15 and 16. Even his bounce-back 2007 season doesn't rate very highly in this crowd.

A .272 EqA seems like it should be helpful, but think back to last week's column about the AL's use of its DH slot. The average AL batter hit .268/.336/.420 last year. Griffey is projected to bat .250/.343/.432, very slightly better than that, while providing no or negative defensive and base-running value. That player is not earning a regular job-even given how poorly the AL has chosen its DHs of late-and while he might be worth a bench slot as a pinch-hitter and sixth outfielder, the slot he'd occupy is currently being used by a fifth right-handed reliever.

Now, you could make a case for Griffey as a platoon DH, maybe getting some time in left field as the situation warrants. His performance against southpaws has deteriorated more quickly than his performance against righties, and he hit the latter well enough the last three seasons that if you wanted to argue for platooning him-a rare treat in today's 12-pitcher world-you could.


              Vs.RHP               Vs.LHP
          AVG   OBP   SLG      AVG   OBP   SLG
2008     .272  .379  .462     .202  .299  .350
2007     .300  .402  .540     .236  .317  .419
2006     .278  .346  .523     .204  .256  .415

PECOTA doesn't predict platoon splits, but if Griffey were to improve by five points of EqA, as projected, you could comfortably say that he'll hit .275/.385/.465 against righties in 2009. That's almost certainly enough to warrant a roster spot. Again, though, keep in mind that even the above player is a DH, with the concomitant higher standards (theoretically) for offense, or he's a poor defensive corner outfielder.

I've been saying all winter that Griffey should retire. The more I look into his splits, the more I think that assessment may be unfair. While he is a limited player now, to ignore the skill he possesses-hitting right-handers-is to make the mistake I've long accused MLB managers of, which is focusing on what a player can't do rather than what he can. Griffey's overall poor statistics are a function of too much playing time against southpaws. It's understandable that his managers would be reluctant to platoon him; he has a star label, and he did hammer left-handers for a big part of his career. Regulating his playing time, though, may be the best way to get the most out of him.

With all that said, are there fits for Griffey in the AL? There's been a lot of talk about the Mariners' interest, but he's a poor fit for their situation. The Mariners need to let Wladimir Balentien and Franklin Gutierrez play, and find out what Bryan LaHair and Mike Carp might be, and eventually make room for Greg Halman. To sign Griffey would be to admit that they're not a baseball team in 2009, but a circus act. It's sentiment to the point of pandering.

Besides, if Griffey wants to play in 2009, you have to figure it's with an eye towards playing in the World Series. It's weird to think of him this way, but Griffey has never played in the Series, was on one post-season series victor in his career, went more than a decade between post-season at-bats, and had just one good postseason in three trips. None of this changes the evaluation of his career, but you have to think that if he's going to come back, it would be to play for a ring.

A team looking to sign Griffey would be looking for a bargain alternative to the three players mentioned earlier, would need lefty balance in their lineup, would have a primary DH spot open, and would be on the brink of contention. Such as:

  • Detroit Tigers: Sorry, Gary, but you can't play every day any longer. Sheffield's contact rate and results on contact tanked last year, his speed is disappearing, and he can't play in the field. There was enough good news against lefties (better K rate, better ISO) to indicate that he could be a credible platoon partner. The Tigers have just two left-handed batters in their projected lineup (Curtis Granderson and switch-hitter Carlos Guillen) and could use at least one more. The Tigers are clearly built to win now.

  • Los Angeles Angels: It seems like a strange fit, especially for fans who remember how 1995 ended, but the Angels are, as usual, in need of OBP and power. The signing of Juan Rivera doesn't address their needs as well as advertised, because Rivera is only intermittently productive and rarely an everyday player. With the losses of Mark Teixeira and Garret Anderson, as well as Gary Matthews Jr.'s injury, there are at-bats available. The Angels have become an old, win-now team with a middling farm system, so adding an aging bat-Griffey would certainly be among the team leaders in OBP and SLG-makes sense for them. Griffey's image as a player who does more than draw walks and hit homers-can you see Dunn as an Angel?-will buy some cover here.

  • Cleveland Indians: I am on the fence about listing the Indians, who have Travis Hafner's contract at DH. That hasn't worked out well for nearly two calendar years, and there's no assurance that it will in the future. The Indians' inability to get production on the corners cost them last year, and seems set to do so again in 2009. Could Griffey adapt to first base well enough to steal some playing time from Ryan Garko? Would it be worth giving him 40 starts in left field in Ben Francisco's stead? It's not the clean fit at DH that he would have in other places... except it might be if Travis Hafner really has fallen off the cliff. The uncertainty over Hafner may well warrant a date with Griffey. This paragraph will not run for Congress.

One thing is clear: I was too dismissive of Griffey on air yesterday. He's a player with limitations, but what he does still do has value, and would improve a number of teams. If he chooses to retire, he does so honorably, but if he wants to keep playing, he does so not as a farewell tour, but as a contributor.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ChinMusic

If the Carlos Guillen in LF experiment doesn't work out (whether defensively he can't handle it or Everett doesn't bring enough bat to SS) Griffey would be a nice left-handed solution in LF for the Tigers. I would love to see it happen, but I don't envision this is the type of move Dombrowski would make.

Feb 05, 2009 11:35 AM
rating: 0
 
ghruth

Why don't you see it as the type of move Dombrowski would make? (Because Griffey has never played for the Marlins?)

Keep Griff away from the Tigers, thanks.

Feb 05, 2009 14:28 PM
rating: 0
 
ChinMusic

I don't think the Tigers would bite because of their huge commitment to Sheffield and their fall-back left field option of Marcus Thames. Thames has his uses, but he does keep that line-up tilted to the right and is just as limited defensively as Guillen and Griffey would be. I don't think it would be a marketing ploy at all to add him - even though many people think this is what Griffey is about now. The problem is creating a roster spot for him.

Feb 06, 2009 05:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

A piddling argument unrelated to the main point, but I'll waste everyone's time anyway. If Triple-A stats are as telling/predictive as MLB ones, why do you need to 'make room' for young players, so as to "see what you've got"? Find out what LaHair and Carp might be in Triple A (particularly since Pecota foresees 'not all that much').

I always felt that the Brewers bringing Hammerin' Hank Aaron back to Milwaukee for 2 (win-loss useless) final years was good for the franchise. If a final year of Griffey doesn't block anyone who's forced his way onto the roster, well maintaining your fan base is a darn good devolopmental goal, particularly in really down times. If LaHair or Carp surprisingly crush Triple A for a couple of months, by Memorial Day there undoubtedly will be room for them on the MLB roster courtesy of some injury here or there.

Feb 05, 2009 12:09 PM
rating: 3
 
Fresh Hops

AAA stats aren't as telling or predictive as MLB stats. Who told you that? The supposition that a season playing against competition y is just as predictive of performance against competition x as performance against competition x when x is known to be substantially different from y is almost a priori preposterous. Moreover, it's clear that young players often go through a learning phase upon arrival. Learning and prediction play a different role: this is not fantasy baseball.

Besides, Griffey is not a fit for the Mariners right now at all. They have platoon options at DH that would be just as effective and a better selection of outfielders. If the M's have money to sign a "veteran" player, it needs to be someone that makes a real difference, not someone that's half a win better than a Branyen/Shelton platoon at DH.

Feb 05, 2009 21:34 PM
rating: 1
 
Eddie Bajek

Griffey can't handle left field, and Jeff Larish stands to be a better DH option than him. Like I said last week, the Tigers can't afford to be throwing money around at these guys.

Feb 05, 2009 12:37 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I think Griffey would be a good fit for the Cubs if he can accept a part-time role. Neither Soriano nor Bradley have been reliably healthy over the last few years and Griffey would make for a good lefthanded power-oriented alternative, similar to the role Jim Edmonds played last year.

Feb 05, 2009 12:56 PM
rating: 0
 
cbirkemeier

Contrary to what Joe said, I want to point out that PECOTA does predict platoon splits, or at least it did last year. Here's Griffey's from last year: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/pecota/griffke02.php#platoon

Feb 05, 2009 13:26 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I should have said "the PECOTA spreadsheet." When the cards are updated, they will have a split, as you note. Thanks!

Feb 05, 2009 15:39 PM
 
jramirez

Could he fit the Yankees? Obviously they fit the criteria of being a contender the question is where? Well, if Gardner/Cabrera crap out does the following alignment seem out of place?

LF - Matsui
CF - Damon
RF - Swisher
DH - Griffey

You'd have Nady to fill in in various situations and while the defense there would be pretty heinous if Gardner/Cabrera aren't getting it done this would be a decent fallback.

Feb 05, 2009 14:36 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

The Yankees need another OF/DH who can't play center field like I need the last donut. As it is, they're sweating the possibility that Posada will have to DH, and the issues that will create for the lineup and roster.

If they were going to do that, they might as well sign Ramirez (if we could clarify whether they legally can or not).

Feb 05, 2009 15:42 PM
 
johnhat

"To sign Griffey would be to admit that they're not a baseball team in 2009, but a circus act. It's sentiment to the point of pandering."

Really?!

I fully understand that he is not a good fit, based on need and the position the Mariner's are in (rebuild), but adding him would only slow one element of Jack Z's rebuild process. Its not like its going to kill this teams's run (ha!) at the playoffs this year or next.

the flip side of him playing for this team is that even at the PECOTA estimates, he would be a 'good addition' (assuming platooned) AND it would be 'electric' for many fans (like me) to see him end his career here. And for a team that is rebuilding, adding that element to the season has merit.

Feb 05, 2009 15:14 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

If you sign Griffey Jr., who's kinda good enough to play when he's healthy, he becomes your story. It's distracting. If he plays poorly, it's "how much longer can you keep playing him?" and you're eventually forced to dump an icon. If he plays well, it's "can you trade him at the deadline?" "He's rejuvenated and you can sign him for 2010!"

Maybe he wouldn't be blocking anyone special, but I'm certain that a team in the Mariners' position is better off playing the 25-year-old "not anyone special" than the 39-year-old "not anyone special." To sign Griffey distracts from the goal of building a winning baseball team over time.

And not to be a jerk, but there's no "veteran leadership" argument to be made. As noted, the last time Griffey was a good player on a successful team, Bill Clinton was our president. Moreover, you have to wonder how much of Griffey's injury history was unavoidable, and how much was the product of training deficiencies.

So no, the Mariners should take the 400 at-bats and give them to anyone else, because that's how you answer questions and build a good new team.

Feb 05, 2009 15:47 PM
 
jdseal

Ahhh, but if he sells enough marginal tickets (and without him it will be dismal) to make a meaningful revenue difference, that in turn could make a meaningful difference to next year's payroll to allow for the signing of an additional free agent or two, or locking up a youngster that might otherwise be lost, well, that's one path to "rebuilding" if rebuilding is defined as making yourself better 2 or 3 years down the road.

Feb 05, 2009 17:45 PM
rating: 0
 
Fresh Hops

Everyone listen to Joe. Joe is speaking sense.

Feb 05, 2009 21:50 PM
rating: 0
 
Lou Doench

Going into last year, my impression of Jr. was that the bast way he could help the reds would be to blow out his knee in spring training. We've been pretending Griffey was something he wasn't for the last three years, a starting outfielder. I hope Joe is right and he can help a team towards a championship, (would the Twins be a good fit?), but the view from here in Cincy is well done toast.

Feb 05, 2009 15:40 PM
rating: 0
 
johnhat

Joe, I really can't argue with you from a personnel decision - I completely concede it.

The real issue here is making 'not the optimal' personnel decision for the team - to benefit the organization for 1 (maybe 2) years. There are financial benefits to the M's signing him (read swag).

Listen, I have been an M's fan since '77. I have seen the veteran signees they have done, from Willie Horton, to Gormon Thomas to Jeffrey Leonard to Richie Sexson. This signing is NOT the same. I was there at his return. We won't complain if he hits .220 and sucks. We won't ask for a trade if he performs. He's baseball family.

Its like the Yanks having the Mick from '51 - '60, losing him to FA and then having a chance to get him back for the pitiful late '60's Yankee teams. Its not the best personnel choice, but its historic in nature to the organization and fans.

Feb 05, 2009 16:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Sacramento

Might as well have Griffey pull a J.T. Snow and sign a one day contract to play for the Mariners after he retires.

Feb 05, 2009 23:27 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Johnhat gets closer to what I was trying to say. Playing off of his, I'll see if I can nudge still closer.

LaHair or Carp, even as 'kinda OK' prospects, would be better for the 'team'. Only slightly so, is all I'll concede, though. Learning something with the big club is slightly better than learning it at Triple A, proving something with the big club is slightly better than proving it at Triple A.

Griffey is much better for the 'franchise'. He will sell a few extra tickets, he will keep folks watching/listening to the games on TV/radio a bit more. He will make people feel better about an 'otherwise awful without him anyways' team. He will mean some extra $$$ to the franchise. He will keep some casual fans interested who will otherwise become uninterested. This stuff counts.

Having Hank Aaron for '75-'76 sure didn't keep the Brewers from springing forward in '78. Heck, maybe it even gave them just enough extra money so as to afford Larry Hisle in '78.

Feb 05, 2009 21:05 PM
rating: 1
 
Fresh Hops

There's no evidence that seats sold for having a star would make up for seats lost due to loosing. This is an unsubstantiated claim that sports writers make up when they need things to say in the off season and nostalgia sells papers.

Feb 05, 2009 21:41 PM
rating: 1
 
Matt Hunter

I wish I could see him play live again before he retires if he doesn't this offseason. Selfish reasons but he is my favorite athlete of all time and I was so disappointed when he kept getting injured.

I understand that he is extremely limited at this point, just hope he catches on with someone and I can drive to see them when they play either ATL, or TB

Feb 05, 2009 22:23 PM
rating: 0
 
Schere

Really, he lost his speed because he's heavy-legged? I thought it was the 84 leg injuries.

Feb 06, 2009 06:36 AM
rating: 0
 
ofMontreal

No one seems to have added this, but the paid monkey at ESPN did his job yesterday and reported that Junior will be healthy in the legs and able to run. As much as it sounds like Griffey's agent selling, it does ring as true considering how terrible he looked down the stretch. If he is healthy, he is worth signing by someone like the Mariners. He could certainly give good production as a left DH guy for them and provide some intangibles for the local media & franchise.

Feb 06, 2009 16:31 PM
rating: 0
 
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