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.