BALTIMORE – They fired their hitting coach because they weren’t getting any offense, and the Seattle Mariners may soon have to make an even tougher decision on what to do with Ken Griffey Jr.
The best player in franchise history, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, Griffey is 40 years old and well past his most productive years.
What the Mariners are dealing with now is an icon with a surgically repaired but still troublesome knee – an injury that has left the possibility of his playing the field moot.
At the plate, facing only right-handed starting pitchers, Junior is batting .208 in 77 at-bats, with four runs scored and five RBI. Coming off a full season in which he hit .213 in 117 games with 19 homers and 57 RBI, there seems little reason to expect a dramatic turnaround at the plate.
For those who remember the feel-good image of Griffey being carried around Safeco Field on the shoulders of his teammates at the end of last season, the thought of him retiring in midseason – or being released – doesn’t suit the legend Junior has become.
Obviously, Griffey’s problems at the plate are shared by most of the roster, except Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez. But Griffey mans a position the team might most easily improve via trade, call-up or signing.
It’s a situation that’s been discussed since Griffey re-signed with the team last November, when general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu discussed an exit strategy.
“We’re not going to speculate on the status of Ken Griffey Jr. or any other player on the team,” said Randy Adamack, the Mariners vice president of communications. “Jack isn’t going to comment.”
When Griffey reported to spring training, he hadn’t lost the weight the team had hoped he would, and that knee required gel injections at least twice during camp to ease inflammation.
Unable to run hard meant Griffey couldn’t play himself into shape – and certainly not in the field. When Mike Sweeney was added to the 25-man roster, Wakamatsu was left with a bench that included two men who could not play in the field.
With Griffey, the issue goes beyond his lack of power or production. The Griffey that a year ago helped build camaraderie in the Seattle clubhouse has largely been a quieter presence in 2010.
There have been times during games when he’s retired to the clubhouse, texted friends, watched the TV broadcast rather than sit with teammates on the bench.
And last week, when members of the press corps asked Wakamatsu why he hadn’t used Griffey as a pinch hitter for Rob Johnson late in a game, Waskamatsu was vague.
Two Mariners players, however, weren’t.
“He was asleep in the clubhouse,” one player said. “He’d gone back about the fifth inning to get a jacket and didn’t come back. I went back in about the seventh inning – and he was in his chair, sound asleep.”
The other player, who knows Griffey a little better, tried to rationalize.
“He doesn’t sleep well at night, he’s away from his family, he’s comfortable in the clubhouse,” he said. “They could have awakened him ...”
It’s hardly a capital offense, but it’s a telling piece of anecdotal evidence. This isn’t the Griffey of 2009.
What the Mariners are discussing and must decide is whether this is the Griffey who can help the Mariners at all in 2010.
It won’t be a decision made by one man.
Wakamatsu and Zduriencik have discussed it, and team president Chuck Armstrong – a close friend and supporter of bringing Griffey back – would have to be involved in any decision to sever the Mariners’ relationship with Junior.
For now, the only thing that could change immediately is whether Wakamatsu uses Griffey as the only DH on this trip – when the Mariners aren’t scheduled to face a left-handed starting pitcher.
He could decide to play Sweeney, instead, which would be a telling move on its own.