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Monday, March 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:22 A.M.
Major League Baseball
By Bob Finnigan
PEORIA, Ariz. While there are several "ifs" in the process, some of them big and some of them expensive, there is more than a passing chance the Mariners are giving serious consideration to bringing Ken Griffey Jr. back.
Cincinnati is known to be looking to move Griffey's contract with $66.5 million still due him for five guaranteed years, plus an option for 2009. Officials of the Seattle club are believed to have had a number of internal discussions on the matter, including here at training camp.
A source among Griffey's friends has said that he would be happy to return.
Seattle has made no secret of its search to upgrade its offense, and Griffey, if he is healthy and willing to return as a purely positive influence, could be the optimum fit on the field.
In addition, the outfielder, who left Seattle to be with his hometown Cincinnati team prior to the 2000 season, would fulfill what may be perceived as the team's need to make a public-relations bang.
This is not to suggest the Mariners are set on bringing back Griffey to the town in which he made the All-Century team, or that they will do anything at all.
The biggest hurdle to returning Griffey could be the five guaranteed years left on his contract, starting at age 34 with major injuries wiping out most of his past two seasons. Balanced against that is the fact that Griffey's money is spread out for years after he is done playing $6.5 million a year is deferred.
Yet, in the offseason the Mariners were unable to accomplish one of their goals, to add a big bat as second baseman Bret Boone put it, "a bopper" to an offense that ranked seventh in the American League in scoring and 13th in home runs, topping only Tampa Bay.
Tampering rules prevent speaking of specific players, but there are extremely few outfielders available to, in the words of Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi early this spring, "add some kind of offense."
"We're ready to act now, and we'll be talking to every team," Bavasi said. "But probably nothing would happen until spring games start and other teams see what they have, what they might be willing to do and what they need."
With Milwaukee recently signing Geoff Jenkins to a multiyear contract, the list is seemingly limited to Magglio Ordonez of the Chicago White Sox, a free agent after this year, and Griffey, in the midst of a long-term deal with the Reds that pays him $62.5 million for five more years with a $4 million buyout of a club option for 2009.
Being a center fielder and a left-handed bat, Griffey would appear to be better built for Seattle than Ordonez, a right-side hitter and right fielder.
Seattle manager Bob Melvin has made clear his reluctance to shift Ichiro to center, which would be necessitated by trading for Ordonez, who will make $14 million this year.
Carlos Beltran of Kansas City is another outfielder once believed to be on the market. But there are several significant reasons Beltran, who will make $8 million this season, would not be available. First, the Royals are expected to be a contender in the AL Central. Second, there is strong speculation that agent Scott Boras will take Beltran to free agency, where he would top next winter's talent list.
"With Griffey, if he's healthy and still got his power," a National League scout noted, "you don't ever have to worry his power is juiced (steroid-aided). He is natural and always has been, and these days that's no small thing to consider."
Seattle CEO Howard Lincoln may be the major player in any effort to trade for Griffey, certainly in all situations where the club would be committing many millions for many years.
There is the long-standing feeling now urban legend at Safeco Field that Lincoln would not countenance Griffey's return, that there continued to be bad feeling stemming from Griffey's demand to be traded.
But a Seattle source said recently this is not so: "There's this feeling that Howard wants Griffey to do penance, to walk in the desert, but that just is not true."
Lincoln refrains from addressing that directly.
Instead, asked about his feelings toward the former center fielder, the most important player ever to wear a Seattle uniform, Lincoln refers to a radio interview he gave last month.
"Let me put it this way: If I was stranded on a deserted island and I had to pick one or the other to be with me there, I would pick Kenny without any hesitation."
Asked about his feelings of adding Griffey, in the sense that at one time there may have been friction, Lincoln cited the possibility of tampering and refused to speculate.
But at the same time, he emphasized, "When it comes to putting together a good ballclub, I assure you I have a completely open mind."
The Mariners are known to be wary of Griffey's physical condition after five stretches on the disabled list, three of them for right-leg injuries, which limited him to 234 games the past three years.
For the Mariners, possibly more than any other club, Griffey's approach may be as key as his health.
Treated as a franchise player, Griffey was a monster figure in the organization. Some of it irked, such as rarely joining his teammates for pregame stretching. Some of it was affectation, such as the leather lounge chair at his locker.
As one Seattle executive put it, "there will be no more Barcaloungers in the clubhouse."
The status took a serious turn in 1999 when Griffey called former GM Woody Woodward during a game to complain about the Safeco Field roof being open.
On that incident, Brian Goldberg, Griffey's agent, made a point.
"Ken took the fall for that," said Goldberg, who was at the park yesterday to watch client Ben Howard, a San Diego Padres pitcher. "But he wasn't alone. He had a number of teammates urging him to make the call, telling him he's the only one the team would listen to."
The club has made a number of changes to cut the glare during day games, and Griffey is aware of those.
Sources also confirm that Griffey is aware of Seattle's firm stance that, if the Mariners were to bring him back, it would be as an essential contributor no more privileged than any other lead player.
A deal could take several forms. In the most obvious scenario, the Mariners would take on all Griffey's money and give an outfielder back, probably Randy Winn.
But Seattle, with mound depth starting to back up at Tacoma, could part with one or two young arms if Cincinnati would take on some of Griffey's contract or part with a pitcher such as Chris Reitsma, the Reds' hard-throwing right-hander.
There is no timetable for any deal. The Mariners would wait as long as needed to see how well Griffey has come back from his ailments.
If it somehow came to pass, how would Seattle players feel about having him back?
A sample of responses in the clubhouse: "Fine with me." "Really? Great." "Wow!"
Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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