No room for Junior in M's lineup

Ken Griffey delivered a big hit last Friday night. But as the Oregonian's Aaron Fentress writes, there haven't been many of those this season.

    Such sights, however, have been rare during Griffey's return to Seattle for what many believe will be the 39-year-old's farewell season. His career-low batting average of .219, seven home runs and 22 RBIs were not what Seattle hoped for when it sought to add power to its weak offense.
    But nobody in the clubhouse has disparaged Griffey's contributions to the team's surprising 35-34 start. He is credited for helping to improve the toxic atmosphere of a team that finished 61-101 last season and has provided star power and leadership to a roster rife with journeymen, underachieving youth and bloated contracts.

    "He likes to have fun, he likes to joke around, he's loose, he keeps everybody else loose," Seattle pitcher Jarrod Washburn said. "As much as his [batting] numbers may not show it, he's still a huge presence in the lineup. He gets walked an awful lot just because he's Ken Griffey Jr. Whether he's swinging the bat well or not."

He gets walked an awful lot because he's Junior Griffey, but also because he's old. The walks are nice, but Griffey's scored only 18 runs this season because he's old. He's been mostly limited to DH duties -- though that may change with Endy Chavez's season-ending injury -- because he's old.
I cannot quantify Griffey's contributions to the Mariners' chemistry because 1) I'm not there, and 2) chemistry is non-quantifiable. If Washburn says it's good to have Griffey around, I'm inclined to believe him. And while Griffey's .219 batting average is uninspiring (to say the least), he's drawn enough walks and hit enough home runs that -- and here's the real problem -- among the 11 Mariners with at least 100 plate appearances, he's got the third-best OPS.

The M's are last in the league in scoring, and they've earned that distinction with the second-worst on-base percentage and the second-worst slugging percentage in the league. Griffey's not really the problem ... but he's no part of the solution, either. The solution is to get better hitters into the lineup, and it just so happens that of the available options for doing that, almost all of them play the two positions that Griffey can play.

With Chavez out, the options in left field seem to be Griffey and Wladimir Balentien. You know about Griffey. Balentien's got a .263 OBP in nearly 400 plate appearances in the majors; he's been a bust and should probably just be released.

Or maybe not. Balentien turns 25 next week and his minor-league stats do suggest that he can play a little bit. But he's not an every-day solution in left field, right now. A Balentien/Griffey platoon might not be terrible. Well, except for the brutal defense.

Which is why the M's should, right now, turn to prospect Michael Saunders in left field. Just 22, Saunders has rocketed through the minors, hitting at almost every stop and ranking as one of the better defensive outfielders in the organization. He might not hit as much as Balentien/Griffey would -- not right now, anyway -- but he'll make up for that deficiency with his glove. Endy Chavez was in the lineup for his defense. So why not Saunders?

That leaves only the DH slot for Griffey ... but the M's have a superior candidate there, too. Last week the M's called up Mike Carp -- who turns 23 next week, and is another fruit of the trade that sent J.J. Putz to the Mets -- and he can hit, right now. Carp's OBP in Double-A last year was .403; this year in Triple-A it was .412, and he'll jack the occasional homer, too.

Like Griffey, Carp bats left-handed. Like Griffey, Carp's pretty useless anywhere but the batter's box and really should be allowed to wear a floppy leather glove only in an emergency.

All this might be moot, except somehow the Mariners are only two-and-a-half games out of first place in what might be the worst division in the majors. Now, maybe the M's should give up anyway. Trade any veterans who will bring in a few fresh-faced prospects. But they can't have it both ways. If they're going to try to win, they should try to win, and that means letting the talented kids play instead of the old guy who keeps everybody loose.