Ever since Ken Griffey Jr. returned to Seattle with the Reds a season and a half ago, and said that he would like to retire as a Mariner, speculation on Griffey's return has skyrocketed. With him currently on the free agent market, and the M's looking for a left-handed power bat, speculation has only intensified this offseason. Now, as pitchers and catchers report to spring training, the M's are rumored to be close to bringing back Junior.
Let's start with Ken Griffey Jr. the ballplayer. He is 39, and he is a shadow of what he used to be. He has virtually no range defensively, and his bat speed is noticably slower these days. His offensive numbers across the board dipped significantly this past season. Since leaving Seattle, his injury record leaves much to be desired too. Opponents of resigning Griffey can point to any of these facts, and they have without hesitation.
However, there is way more to consider than just what Ken Griffey Jr. is right now. He needs to be put into context. Until this week, there were clearly better options on the free agent market, namely Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu. However, they are now both gone, and more importantly, were both out of the M's price range. With what the Mariners have to offer, they essentially have two viable free agent options, Garret Anderson and Ken Griffey Jr.
So, who would you rather have? Anderson is coming off a year where he batted .293/.325/.433, and he will turn 37 in 2009. Griffey batted .249/.353/.424, and he will turn 39 this season. Anderson is a couple years younger and has better defense at this point, but neither of those should be significant factors in this decision. Both, if signed by the Mariners, should primarily DH, and be signed to one-year deals. So it is really a question of who will have the better bat in 2009.
Personally, I'll take my chances with Griffey. He is more patient than Anderson, and always has been. The M's lineup could really use some patience too. Also, though Griffey's power numbers are worse than Anderson's last year, Griffey battled through a knee injury all of last year. He had surgery in the offseason, so there is some reason to believe he can rebound some. Even with the knee injury, Griffey's OPS was higher than Anderson's last year, so it seems plausible that Griffey would at least match Anderson's OPS in 2009.
So, if Anderson and Griffey are at least equally valuable hitters (with Griffey potentially having a little more upside), and Anderson and Griffey are the only two realistic free agent options, this decision is a no-brainer. Bring back Ken Griffey Jr. Emotions do matter, especially for this franchise right now. Mariners fans need a reason to cheer in 2009, and nobody could provide a spark to the fan base like Griffey. His presence alone will increase ticket sales, and create a buzz around the team heading into 2009.
Reallistically, this team only has a faint chance of contending next year. It is still building. I've seen plenty of talk that Griffey should not be signed because he is not a long-term solution, but that makes no sense to me at all. So much good could come out of energizing the fan base. More fans will come out to games and watch the team at TV. That means more fans will get excited about youngsters on this team like Felix Hernandez and Franklin Gutierrez.
Maybe Griffey the ballplayer (at this point) is not a rare commodity. But how many franchises get the opportunity to bring a hero home for one last hurrah? Alvin Davis remains Mr. Mariner, but Griffey was the team's first superstar. He was arguable the city of Seattle's first superstar. As Griffey started to chase guys like Babe Ruth in the record books, he brought baseball's rich history to life in Seattle. He still has hit more home runs than anyone else in franchise history. He was the team's first MVP winner. In his prime, he was the most popular player not just in franchise history, but in all of baseball. There is a good chance he will be the first player to go into the Hall of Fame as a Mariner. He scored on "the double," and his smile underneath the dogpile after he scored is the most iconic image in Mariners history.
Emotions do matter in baseball. History matters. Nostalgia matters. A team completely run on emotions, history, and nostalgia will derail quickly, but that does not mean that they should not matter. Even purely as a player, Griffey is about as good of an option as any the M's can acquire on the free agent market. Given everything else Griffey brings to the table, that's more than enough to bring him back.
Just take a step back for a second and imagine what it could be like on opening day. Imagine number 24 strolling from the on-deck circle to the batter's box. Imagine hearing over the PA system, "Now batting...number 24...Ken Griffeeeeeeey Junior!" The crowd would go wild. It would be a moment that would send a chill down the spine of Mariners nation. Imagine him stepping into the box, digging a toe hole, and then pinwheeling that sweet black bat of his around. Again, a team should not be run purely on emotions, but this scenario could happen, and all things considered, there is no good reason to pass it up.
Come back home Griffey. It's going to be great to have you back.