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Junior Coming Back

Ken Griffey Jr.Today, the Mariners announced that they have re-signed Ken Griffey Jr. He inked a one-year deal worth a reported $2 million, with another $1 million that can be earned in incentives. It appears to be similar to the deal he signed last year.

There is lots to say and debate over this move, even though we are talking about a 40-year-old aging slugger signing for near the veteran minimum. That happens when the player in question is the greatest player in franchise history.

Even Jack Z's comment that it was "strictly a baseball decision" is quite cryptic. The Mariners, like any baseball team, make predominately baseball decisions. Real bold, Jack, real bold.

Re-signing Griffey is a statement that the 2010 Mariners are better off with him than without him. Since my off-season plan included re-signing Griffey, it's not too hard to figure out what I think of this move. It's excellent, and I'm especially glad it happened so fast.

Still, it's hard to say exactly what positive contributions the Mariners can expect from Griffey.

As far as on-field value goes, some point at Griffey's old age, steadily declining numbers, and virtually non-existent fielding, and argue he is living almost purely on his name value. Griffey was among the greatest of all-time in his prime, but he is now a decade removed from his glory days. The decline is bound to continue, to the point where he takes the spot of a more talented player.

Others point to the knee surgery Griffey just had, and say that is reason for hope. They also point to the 19 home runs he hit, as well as his place in the 600 home run club. Griffey still has a little power, even at 40 years old, and combines it with a tremendous eye. That's a weapon coming off the bench. There also is a good case to be made that Griffey had some bad luck last year. His BABIP was a paltry .222, well off his career mark of around .300. Those numbers suggest more of the balls he hit should have found holes.

Personally, I think Griffey will rebound slightly. The knee operation can't hurt. He won't have any worse luck than he had in 2009, as evidenced by his BABIP. However, the main reason his BABIP wasn't close to his career average is because he's nowhere close to the hitter he used to be. Griffey doesn't hit the ball as hard as he used to, plain and simple. You can tell that watching him play just as easily (if not more) as from any metric.

I expect Griffey's strikeouts and pop-ups to go up a little more in 2010, as he continues to get older, but the decline will likley be counteracted by better luck. So, an offensive performance slightly better than 2009 seems reasonable to me. As an everyday outfielder or DH, Griffey's .735 OPS from 2009 is tough to swallow. However, as a pinch-hitter, that's valuable, especially considering Griffey's prime weapons at this point are patience and power, the two weapons that comprise a threatening pinch hitter.

Plus, there is the whole "Griffey factor." At this point, Griffey's skillset isn't a ton different from the Phillies' Matt Stairs. However, if you are a pitcher, do you look at Matt Stairs the same way as Ken Griffey Jr? No way, no way at all. On some level, Griffey is still Griffey. He has just enough skills to remind everyone of what he used to be, and as long as he can do that, his past remains an intimidating factor in the back of a pitcher's head, and the opposing manager's mind. Whether it should be in the back of opponents' heads is debatable. That's not the issue at hand though. Griffey's past is in their heads, and so it has an impact that adds to Griffey's value.

Ultimately though, Griffey's situation fans the flames of another, bigger conversation ongoing in baseball: what's the value of clubhouse chemistry? Nobody denies that Griffey's presence was a huge positive in last year's clubhouse. There was much much more harmony, and many more smiles. Nobody denies that, and nobody denies that it was nice to see. However, does a more positive clubhouse produce more victories?

The cop-out answer is that, since no one has figured out how to quantify clubhouse chemistry, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions. You could say the same about nutrition though. Nobody has concrete adjustments derived through statistical methods to account for the impact of a player's nutrition on their performance, yet it's fairly universally agreed upon that it is a good thing for players to eat more carrots than Red Vines.

That's a bit of an unfair comparison. Nutrition is a factor independent of specific personnel. Signing a "clubhouse guy," and giving him a roster spot over a potential up-and-coming prospect could result in a less talented team. That adds a little more urgency to place a quantifiable value on team chemistry.

The premise remains though - somehow, people have rationally deducted that better nutrition is worth pursuing in an effort to improve a team's performance. Similarly, just because there is no statistic to help predict clubhouse chemistry doesn't mean there is no way to rationally approach its value.

Consider 2009. Don Wakamatsu did some different things, especially by baseball standards. He talked a whole bunch about "belief systems," and feelings in general. Guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney bought into it.

What if Griffey hadn't bought in? What if he had talked about how silly a belief system is, or how dumb it is? Guys like Rob Johnson and Michael Saunders certainly would have heard that, and likely become highly skeptical of anything Wakamatsu said. What young player wouldn't give Griffey's word credence, with all he has seen and accomplished? All of sudden, the players aren't very coachable. Progress halts. Promising prospects stop developing. Maybe players don't get worse, but they stop getting better. On a team with its best days still ahead, that's a problem. That's a big problem.

So, to say Ken Griffey Jr. doesn't have a place on a building team is wrong. He is important. The players would not have bought into Don Wakamatsu's system like they did without Griffey's presence, particularly as a fellow player.

The Mariners totally changed direction in 2009. It was a revolution by baseball standards, which is pretty rare. The franchise was in a free-fall at the end of 2008, and I would have been happy to just stop that last year. Instead, this team has some positive momentum. Griffey's clubhouse presence enabled such rapid progress, in conjunction with Wakamatsu and his coaching staff.

As far as I'm concerned, if a year was enough time to completely change direction, it's also enough time to unravel all the good that happened. 2009 was a season defined by positive changes. 2010 will be judged by how well the Mariners maintain their new ways, and continue to build on them.

I'm not saying the M's couldn't build on 2009 without Griffey. Wakamatsu wasn't going anywhere. However, taking away Griffey, one of the greatest enablers of the progress, would have been dangerous at this critical juncture in the process. It was an unnecessary risk to take, especially when Griffey wanted to come back at a reasonable price, and still provides value as a bench bat.

Plus, there is that whole iconic face-of-the-franchise/greatest player in team history/warm and fuzzy memories of the good ol' days thing. Not a bad throw-in with the deal.

It's good to have Junior back.