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Thursday, May 13, 2010
Scripting Griffey's final chapter

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

His average hovers around the Mendoza Line (.200). His slugging percentage (.225) looks way too much like his area code (206).

He's been outhomered by Yovani Gallardo (1-0). He has a lower OPS (.486) than Lou Marson (.497).

If the man compiling these gruesome numbers was almost anyone else besides a fellow named George Kenneth Griffey Jr., we know what would happen. Don't we?

Ken Griffey Jr.
Since returning to Seattle before the 2009 season, Ken Griffey Jr. is hitting .212 with a .693 OPS.
The Mariners have already proved that if he was Eric Byrnes, he'd be pedaling his two-wheeler to the first tee by now. If he was Michael Saunders, he'd be back in Tacoma. If he was even Jim Edmonds, his team (the Milwaukee Brewers) would be thanking him for the memories and moving onward.

But this man is none of them. He's not just another name on the lineup card, not just another face on the program cover. Not on his team. Not in his town. Not in his sport.

He's Ken Griffey Jr. And because of who he is, the easy thing for the Seattle Mariners to do isn't necessarily the right thing to do.

The citizens of this continent have spent the week obsessing over Griffey's nap schedule. But you know what? That isn't the part of his story that matters a whole lot.

What matters -- what really matters -- is whether this guy can still be a productive member of his roster, and whether he can still be a leader on a team that needs leadership, not whether he can stay awake for all nine innings.

But even if the men who employ him decide the answer to those questions is no, that just leads to an even harder question:

How does everybody go about scripting a fitting final chapter to a saga as spectacular as Ken Griffey Jr.'s?

That wasn't a question that his general manager, Jack Zduriencik, had much interest in discussing with our Rumblings inquisitors. But he did say this -- and we agree with every word of it:

"One thing Ken will always get is the respect and dignity he deserves in this game," Zduriencik said. "And he'll always get that from this organization and this community, and he deserves that."

Unfortunately, there's no handy-dandy manual on how to deal with situations like this. We checked The New York Times' best-seller list. There's no "The Aging Superstar Cure." No "Switch: How to Change Legends When Change Is Hard." Not even a "Mike and Mike's Rules for Handling Icons and Heroes."

But there's also no spreadsheet, no computer program, no advanced sabermetric computation, that will tell Zduriencik and the Mariners what to do next, either. Sorry. If you think there is, you just don't get it.

If nothing mattered in this sport beyond VORP or WARP, this would be simple. In this case, though, we have a human being involved. And not just any human being. A human being who has been one of the greatest players of modern times. And he matters.

People like Griffey can't merely be crumpled up and fed to the waste-management trucks when they stop hitting. They deserve more. They've earned more. Clearly, the Mariners are wrestling with how to afford this particular human what he's earned. And that means he can't be just another name in the transactions column.

"This has got to be his call," said an executive who has a history with Griffey. "If it were me, I don't think I could even bring it up to him. He's got to bring it up to you. I wouldn't be comfortable doing anything like that with a player like him. It's got to be his call. It's got to be his terms. They committed to him. They brought him back. So because of his stature in the game and his legacy in the game, I think it has to be on his terms."

The same exec raises an interesting point, though. When his teammates carried Griffey off the field after the final game of last season, wouldn't that have made the perfect final scene in the future box-office hit, "Griffey Almighty"? If there was a tough call to be made, shouldn't the Mariners have made it after Griffey hit .214 last season?

But Zduriencik told Rumblings that the Mariners never really hesitated last fall. They signed him so quickly, in fact, he was actually their second transaction of the entire offseason. After a feel-good season for everybody, it just felt right -- at the time.

"Ken wanted to come back," Zduriencik said. "He was so excited by the way the year ended last year … he wanted to be part of the turnaround here. He had such a great time, he expressed interest in wanting to be back. So we talked, and we brought him back. That's all there was to it."

But once the Mariners made that decision, they essentially set themselves up for the uncomfortable situation that's engulfed them now. And what is going to make this especially difficult is that the people who know Griffey best can't even imagine he'll have any desire to quit. Not now.

"I don't see that at all," said his close friend, and former Reds teammate, Adam Dunn. "This guy loves playing baseball … more than anyone I've ever been around in my life. It's not even close. If I were him, going through the [injury] stuff he's been through, I would have been done in '01 or '02. But not him -- because nobody loves baseball more than that guy."

Dunn says he spoke to Griffey this week after Nap-gate busted out -- and Griffey "told me what happened, and it's nothing like that. But if you know him, he's not going to come out and try to defend himself. I even said to him, 'Aren't you going to come out and defend it?' And he said, 'I don't have to.'"

But Dunn leaped to his buddy's defense anyway, saying there is "no chance" that Griffey -- or any player -- would be catching any Z's during the sixth inning of a game.

"In the first or second inning, I buy it," Dunn said. "That's different. You see that every night. It happens. But not in the sixth inning. No way."

Ken started [in Seattle]. He's an icon player here. He's loved in this community, and he plays a tremendous role in this community and on this ball club. ... Ken wanted to be here to do what he could to turn this around. He's making the best contribution he can. And we'll see. We'll see what happens.

-- Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik
Again, though, whether it happened or didn't happen, how much does that even matter? In some ways, it's more interesting that the story got out, that it got leaked, than whether it's accurate in every minute detail.

The reporter who wrote it -- Larry LaRue, of the Tacoma News Tribune -- is a longtime beat man, and a total pro. So the question shouldn't be, "Is it true?" The question should be, "Why did somebody want it to get out there at all?"

But that's a question for another time. The biggest question, for this time, is whether there's any reason to think Griffey can still play. And if that answer turns out to be "no," then the Mariners are stuck with a dilemma with no simple solutions:

What's the best way for everybody concerned to find a dignified end to a beautiful story?

"I want him to go out on his own terms," Dunn said. "Maybe hit a home run, round the bases and say, 'That's enough,' so people remember who he is and what he did -- not just for Seattle but for the game. … That's what I'd do. The last thing you'd want is for them to run him out. That would be a shame."

Asked if Griffey recognizes that The End is at least approaching, Dunn said: "Obviously. I think he realizes he's been playing for like 30 years or whatever. So he knows you can't play forever. But he also knows he's still having fun."

So while The End might be showing up on Griffey's viewfinder, there's no reason to think he's in any hurry to close this book. But meanwhile, on the other end of this scale, there's no reason to think the Mariners are in any hurry to force the issue, either.

They have five Griffey promotional extravaganzas scheduled just in the first half alone. And team president/CEO Chuck Armstrong is as close to Griffey as anyone in baseball. So clearly, they are going to tiptoe delicately down this path for as long as they can. But they also have big dreams, and an offense that's on pace to score 400 fewer runs than the Yankees. So they're not willing to promise it will be possible to tiptoe forever.

"Ken started here," Zduriencik said. "He's an icon player here. He's loved in this community, and he plays a tremendous role in this community and on this ballclub. He's with us now, and he's part of our club, and you just move forward. Ken wanted to be here to do what he could to turn this around. He's making the best contribution he can. And we'll see. We'll see what happens."

Yes, we will. Won't we? And we can promise you this: When, or if, anything ever does "happen," nobody in baseball will be sleeping through it when it does.

Ready to rumble

•  Thumpless in Seattle: You know all that talk that the Mariners are actively trying to deal for Jose Guillen or some other bat who can add some thunder to the most power-challenged lineup in baseball? "Overblown," says Zduriencik.

"We're not in any kind of panic mode," the GM said. "We've underperformed, and we need to get people to start performing. I'm always going to keep my ears open. I'm always going to be making phone calls. But we're a year and a half into this process of restocking this organization, and we're not giving up the farm. We're not going to do anything we don't think is in our best long-term interests. Yeah, we want to win right now. But we're never going to walk away from the big picture.

"People outside our club might not realize this, but outside of Cliff [Lee], pretty much every guy on this club is back next year. Now the way we're playing, you might say that's not too good. But if it turns out it's just a down month and a half by these guys and most of them bounce back, then that's a good thing. So our feeling is, let's be as competitive as we can and let's do everything we can to win this year … But we'll never walk away from the long-term plan."

•  Cliff hanger: OK, one more Seattle angle, and we'll move on. When the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee in December, they knew precisely what they were getting into.

Lee
Lee

They'd gotten the memo that Lee was a year away from free agency. They knew he was looking for monster years and dollars. They knew there was a chance he might be a one-and-done player in their town. So Zduriencik says that the quotes from Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, to our buddy Buster Olney, didn't upset him in the least.

"Darek and I have talked several times," Zduriencik said. "We've had several discussions, and they've all been courteous. But the thing we've said from the beginning was, 'Let's see how this year goes.' I think they went into this open-minded. If Seattle was a place that Cliff really liked and he wanted to stay, we'd like for that to happen. But he got hurt early on in the spring. He was out almost all of spring training. He hasn't been in Seattle much. So let's see what happens.

"I wasn't offended when he made those statements," the GM said of Braunecker. "We have a long way to go. I know there are so many things that make players want to stay in Seattle. But we just have to wait and see what happens."

That's the right thing to say -- for everyone. But the reality is this: The Mariners are a team with an $86.5 million payroll this year. They already have nearly $50 million committed for next year and about $55 million in 2012. So it's easier to envision them trading Lee in July, if they slip out of the race, than it is to envision them finding the Sabathia-esque money it's going to take to sign him. But it's way too soon to assume either of those paths is inevitable.

•  Deal-breakers: Meanwhile, the GM who traded for Lee last July -- the Phillies' Ruben Amaro Jr. -- isn't sounding like a guy positioning himself to make another we-interrupt-this-program kind of deal this summer.

"To be frank," Amaro told Rumblings, "I don't know if we have the resources to trade people to get that kind of guy. We've traded so many top-level [prospects], we've depleted our organization to the nth degree. … We still have a lot of guys [at lower levels]. But I'd be very reluctant to move any of them.

"What I'm hopeful happens is that [J.A.] Happ comes back and pitches well, and we get [Ryan] Madson back [in late June or early July], which will feel like we made a trade by the time he comes back, and we can try to win with the players we have. To be honest, I hope not to be players at the deadline this year."

A serious injury to Brad Lidge might cause Amaro to revise that stance radically, of course. But when he uttered those words the GM was still working under the assumption that Lidge's elbow issues were nothing major.

•  For what it's Werth: We now hear people in baseball casually refer to Amaro's right fielder, Jayson Werth, as the next $100 million player. And that's a price tag that a team already on the hook for nearly $232 million in salary beyond this season will have a tough time meeting.

Werth
Werth

But what executives on other teams keep pointing out is that baseball is now immersed in its biggest shortage of right-handed power outfield bats in decades. And that could make Werth even more valuable -- and more indispensible to his current employers.

Last season, remember, there were only four right-handed-hitting outfielders in the whole sport (besides Werth) who hit 30 home runs -- Ryan Braun, Jason Bay, Nelson Cruz and Michael Cuddyer. And none will be available any time soon.

There were only six others who even hit 25 homers -- Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Juan Rivera. And of that group, Dye can't find a job now, Lee and Rivera are defensively challenged, and the other three would be impossible to trade for. So if Werth hits the market, it's tough to see the Phillies winning an auction that would almost certainly include the Yankees, Red Sox and many other bidders.

"There were two guys like that [Bay and Matt Holliday] out there last winter, and they both signed for significant dollars," said one GM. "And I don't know that there was anyone else. The game goes in cycles sometimes. Sometimes you can't find shortstops. Sometimes you can't find catchers. And now the cycle is, you can't find right-handed power hitters. So to get one, you've got to pay through your teeth for it. That's just where we're at."

•  Lance-ing with the stars: Two weeks ago, we quoted a friend of Lance Berkman as saying he thought Berkman had no interest in waiving his no-trade clause to exit Houston. So after Berkman said last week he'd be "open" to a deal, we asked the same friend for his reaction.

"Lance doesn't want to go anywhere," the friend said, then laughed. "Would he go somewhere for two months with a chance to win? Like I said before, absolutely. But I think he forgets he's got [a club] option. So it might not be two months. He might be gone for a year and two months.

Berkman
Berkman

"So unless the club wants to agree not to pick up the option or something, that's the only way I'd see him waiving it. But then, if you take that away, and it's only for two months, why would anybody give anything up for him? That's why I say he's not going anywhere."

Hmmm. All excellent points. Not to mention the fact his owner, Drayton McLane, has never shown any inclination to trade away players like Berkman or Roy Oswalt in July before. So what makes anyone believe this is the year?

•  Catch some more Z's: Carlos Zambrano keeps talking like a guy whose tour of bullpen duty won't last much longer than the "one, two, three strikes you're out" chorus in the seventh-inning stretch. But those aren't the rumblings that people all over baseball are hearing out of Wrigley Field.

For one thing, the Cubs' bullpen hasn't blown one lead in the nearly three weeks that Zambrano has been hanging out with the relievers.

Zambrano
Zambrano

Second, their three best starters -- Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Randy Wells -- aren't going anywhere. And the fourth and fifth starters -- Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny -- aren't what you'd call Joba Chamberlain clones.

Third, there still is no lights-out set-up arm the Cubs can trade for who could replace Zambrano in his current bullpen gig.

And fourth, the Cubs must see what executives on other teams see -- namely, that "this guy hasn't pitched like a top-of-the-rotation starter for two years," pointed out one of the executives.

So is the Big Z going to be an $18 million-a-year set-up man for the rest of his life? Doubtful. But is he a good bet to rejoin this rotation in the next three minutes -- or even the next three months? We'd advise you not to go wagering any deep-dish dinners on that.

• Weeks link? The Fielding Bible has hung a messy minus-8 rating on Rickie Weeks' defense over the first six weeks -- a definite turn in the wrong direction for a guy who earned a career-high plus-10 rating last year. So one NL scout says if he were running the Brewers, he'd put Weeks on the B.J. Upton head-for-the-outfield plan.

"I just don't think he's capable of playing in the middle of the infield, at the pace you have to play it," the scout said. "I think he's a lot like Upton. He'd be better off if you put him in the outfield, where the ball takes longer to get there. And it would help his offense, because I really think his defense is affecting his offense. That's the only way they're going to get their full value out of this guy, I think."

• It's your move: We've gotten bombarded the past couple of days by outraged tweets and e-mails from Blue Jays fans, irate over having their Return of Roy Halladay Series abruptly moved to Philadelphia next month. And we don't blame them.

Loyal reader Daniel Palmeri reports he was able to find an alternative to deporting that series "in five minutes." His solution: Just take four teams (Blue Jays, Phillies, Indians, Reds), then flip-flop their series in Cleveland (where the Blue Jays were set to play next) and Toronto. And voila -- neither team would lose a home game. Here's his workable idea:

Sounds awfully reasonable. And we've heard that MLB did in fact look into that very change -- but eventually rejected the idea of moving a marquee interleague rivalry series (Reds-Indians) from a weekend to Monday-Wednesday. And the other alternatives considered -- playing the games at a neutral site like Detroit or Cleveland -- were also rejected by both MLB and the Blue Jays.

So the Blue Jays get stuck with three extra road games. But at least they'll make history. Unlike previous teams that got displaced from their home ballparks by circumstances beyond their control -- like the 1991 Expos (falling concrete at Stade Olympique) and 1994 Mariners (tumbling Kingdome ceiling tiles) -- at least the Jays will get to bat last in the games in Philadelphia.

Until MLB changed the rules in 2007, makeup games of any kind that had to be moved to the other team's city turned into true road games. So no team has batted last for an entire "road" series for at least 50 years, and possibly more than a century.

According to SABR's Tom Ruane, the last known series in which the visiting team batted last took place on Oct. 10-12, 1898, when the Boston Beaneaters hit last in a series in Washington. Research is still ongoing to determine if it's happened more recently.

But regardless, the Blue Jays will definitely become the first AL team ever to use a DH and bat last in a series in a National League park. Amazing.

•  Prodigy Dept.: After we extolled 20-year-old Marlins masher Mike Stanton last week, a scout covering the Marlins' system checked in to say we might have undersold him.

Stanton
Stanton

"I saw Ryan Howard in Double-A at 24, and I swore I'd never seen anything like that at that level -- but then I saw Mike Stanton, at 20," the scout said. "He's got Dave Winfield's body, with the skill set of Jayson Werth. He can run. He can throw. And he's got off-the-charts raw power."

Stanton's latest stat line for your amazement: .349/.493/.844, a ridiculous 1.337 OPS, more homers (15) than singles (14), 35 RBIs and a 31-to-33 walk-strikeout ratio in his first 30 games for Jacksonville.

And his 14th homer of the year -- last week in Montgomery, Ala. -- is already legendary. It was only the second ball in the history of Riverwalk Stadium to clear the 60-foot-high scoreboard in left-center field in Montgomery, and it landed in a forest approximately 500 feet from home plate.

Two things about Stanton's season that haven't gotten enough attention, said the same scout: (1) "He's doing it in a really big park. But he's making that park in Jacksonville look small." And (2) "his knowledge of the strike zone has improved so much. He's not hacking and flailing anymore."

"It's just so good for the game to have kids like Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward and Mike Stanton coming onto the scene," the scout said. "That's three guys we'll all get to enjoy for the next decade -- and maybe a lot longer."

•  Battle of the catching phenoms: It isn't every year that the International League has two catching prospects as hyped as Jesus Montero (Yankees) and Carlos Santana (Indians). But a scout covering that league says there's "no comparison" between those two.

Santana "fits exactly what I want in a catcher," the scout said. "He's 6 feet tall, compact, much more athletic and quicker. He can swing the bat … and he's got the best arm back there I've seen in a long, long time."

Montero, on the other hand, "just got benched for laziness, basically [i.e., not running out a ground ball]. And from what I've seen, the [Austin] Romine kid in Double-A is going to pass right by him, and Montero is going to end up as pretty much a right-hand-hitting DH. He's got talent. But his swing is really long, and he has no discipline. So the Yankees are going to have two frontline catchers. But they're Romine and [Francisco] Cervelli."

•  Capital developments: Is it officially time to fear the Nationals yet? They're now 18-12 since their 1-3 start. They've allowed two runs or fewer 12 times in those 30 games (more than any NL team but the Padres and Giants). And, of course, they have some kid named Strasburg on the way.

"We played just as hard last year as we're playing this year," Dunn said. "Just people didn't notice because we were losing 100 games. There's a different vibe this year. But the main thing is, the games we're winning this year, we would have lost last year, because we were waiting for something [bad] to happen -- and it happened."

Now, though, a lot of good things are happening. And don't think these guys haven't contemplated the kind of season-changing figure Strasburg can be when he shows up.

"Oh, I don't know," Dunn chuckled. "If you like 97 [miles an hour] with sink, and a hammer [curveball], and a change that looks like a splitter -- if you're into that, if you like that kind of stuff, you might like this guy a little. Me personally? I'm a fan of that."

Of course, if it were up to the Nationals' players, Strasburg (and closer-of-the-future Drew Storen) would have made this team out of spring training. But since they didn't get a vote, they can only watch Strasburg's unhittability from afar and laugh.

"You know, sometimes," Dunn said, "I sit there and see he pitched another minor league game and the other team got two hits. And I wonder: 'Those guys who got those two hits -- why aren't they in the big leagues?'"

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again this week, we check in with some of America's greatest scouting minds:

Zumaya
Zumaya

•  On Joel Zumaya: "The ball comes out of his hand and just explodes at the plate. I haven't seen him pitch with this kind of confidence in a long time. He looks like a completely healed, confident guy, throwing 102 [mph]. Of course, if I threw 102, I'd look damn confident."

•  On Joba Chamberlain: "The Yankees really got it right, putting [Phil] Hughes in the rotation, and now Joba's back to being an overpowering bullpen guy. He's back to 97-98 [mph]. And he's got a much better look. He's throwing a lot of fastballs up in the zone and out of the zone, and they're chasing them."

•  On Livan Hernandez: "He's Jamie Moyer -- and probably around the same age."

Quotes of the Week

• From Phillies pitcher Chad Durbin, after watching his 47-year-old teammate, Jamie Moyer, become the oldest pitcher in history to pitch a shutout: "We always joke in the bullpen that when we're retired, we've got to take our kids to a game and watch Jamie pitch."

• From Twins manager/quipster Ron Gardenhire, on whether he'd ever had a player fall asleep during a game: "I've had a player take a nap during the game, when he was in the game. At least I thought so a couple times."

• From Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, uttering the only words many sports fans will ever remember he's delivered: "Boston has an amazing set of remarkable athletes whose actions in the moment have become ionic in sports. Havlicek stole the ball. Fisk waved the ball fair. Flutie launched the Hail Mary pass. Varitek split the uprights."

From Varitek (to the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo): "Guys whose name begins with 'V' can really kick, huh?"

Late Nighter of the Week

From the "Top 10 Thoughts That Went Through Dallas Braden's Mind While He Threw His Perfect Game" -- as recited by (who else?) Dallas Braden:
Braden
Braden

• 10) "Grandma's right. Stick it, A-Rod."

• 3) "Even I've never heard of me."

• 2) "I should give up one hit, so I won't have to do Letterman."

• 1) "Maybe I'll give Kate Hudson a call."

Headliner of the Week

This Ryan Howard contract bulletin just in, from our tongue-in-cheek friends at Phillygameday.com:

HOWARD PLANS TO KEEP JOB,
USE MOST OF $125 MILLION ON BILLS

Tweet of the Week

From the first inductee in our sports-tweet Hall of Fame, "Late Show" genius Eric Stangel (@EricStangel):

"BREAKING MLB NEWS: More Griffey controversy. Unconfirmed reports say Ken Griffey Sr. just fell asleep in a Denny's …"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.