Commentary

Return of an ancient Mariner?

Originally Published: January 27, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

We'll learn soon enough whether Jack Zduriencik, the Seattle Mariners' new general manager, has a flair for turnaround specials. He's running a team that won 61 games, is saddled with some bloated contracts and has its share of clubhouse dysfunction -- particularly if you believe the buzz that Seattle's pitchers dislike throwing to Kenji Johjima and that hostility toward Ichiro Suzuki runs rampant in the clubhouse.

Since taking over in October, Zduriencik, a blue-collar ball guy and former scout, has learned there's more to the job than judging talent. He's had to hire a manager and a coaching staff, devise a long-term strategy for the organization and sell a skeptical public on the Mariners' ability to compete in a winnable American League West.

That's not an easy task when the current depth chart includes Russell Branyan at first base, Endy Chavez in left field, a coin flip at DH, no proven closer and two starters, Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva, who rank among the most disappointing acquisitions of 2008.

It's an even more daunting proposition given the fondness for nostalgia in Seattle. When the man in charge is trying to move the franchise forward, how ardently can he cling to the past?

Zduriencik has made a slew of personal appearances this winter, speaking to season-ticket holders and civic groups and shaking hands at the team's annual FanFest. When folks are finished asking who'll succeed J.J. Putz as closer or where the power will come from, someone invariably mentions the 611-homer elephant in the room.

What are the chances of bringing Ken Griffey Jr. back to Seattle for a final, gratifying farewell in 2009?

While Zduriencik isn't much for sound bites, he's adept at staying on message. He's been consistent in refraining from comment on Griffey or any other potential acquisitions.

"No one is going to go out there and tell somebody their game plan," Zduriencik said. "That would be foolish, and I don't intend to do it here."

Still, you don't have to be Bill James -- or Tony Blengino, Seattle's new special assistant for baseball operations -- to realize the team's offense needs an upgrade. The Mariners ranked 13th in the American League in runs scored and slugging percentage last season, trailing even the offensively challenged Royals. And that was before left fielder Raul Ibanez, the club leader with an .837 OPS and 110 RBIs, signed a three-year deal with the Phillies.

Griffey, of course, is one of several veteran bats available for the taking. Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, Garret Anderson and Jim Edmonds are among the lefty hitters still on the free-agent market, and Manny Ramirez is still looking for a home.

But none of those players is regarded as a civic treasure in Seattle. Even if the Mariners are reluctant to address a potential reunion with Griffey, the story never really goes away.

Seattle's emotional ties to Griffey were evident in June 2007, when he returned to Safeco Field (aka "The House that Griffey Built") for an interleague series between the Reds and Mariners. A crowd of 46,340 gave him a prolonged standing ovation before he could get a word in edgewise. Marty Brennaman, Cincinnati's longtime broadcaster, said he'd never seen an outpouring of affection to match the three-day "lovefest" that greeted Griffey in Seattle.

In contrast to several players mentioned above, Griffey seems to have a realistic view of his value in a downtrodden market. It's believed he's looking for a one-year deal for a base salary in the $5-6 million range. And since the White Sox declined to offer him salary arbitration, he would not require Seattle to surrender any draft picks as compensation.

Nevertheless, there's zero news to report at the moment. While Zduriencik and Griffey's agent, Brian Goldberg, spoke before the winter meetings in December, there are no indications that the two sides have had any substantive discussions of late.

Like several clubs, the Mariners have reservations about Griffey because of his statistical decline in 2008. He hit three homers in 131 at-bats with the White Sox and looked tentative in the outfield after coming over from Cincinnati in a July trade -- prompting many scouts to conclude that he doesn't have much productive baseball left at age 39.

Or does he? Griffey hurt his left knee when he banged it against a misplaced foot locker in the Cincinnati clubhouse in April 2008, and before the season was through, he had the knee drained three times and underwent arthroscopic surgery in October. Dr. Tim Kremcheck, who performed the operation, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that while Griffey's days as an elite player are over, it's realistic to see him regaining his form of five years ago. But Kremcheck also told the newspaper that the Mariners haven't called him this winter to inquire about Griffey's health.

[+] EnlargeKen Griffey Jr.
US PresswireJunior slugged 398 of his 611 career home runs in a Mariners uniform.
Although Zduriencik is keeping his thoughts on Griffey to himself, a glimpse around the majors reveals that it's never easy for franchises to deal with icons who are nearing the end. Just think of Trevor Hoffman's messy divorce with the Padres, or the fallout in Atlanta when John Smoltz signed with the Red Sox, or Boston's contract talks with Jason Varitek this winter, and the perils of mixing business with emotion are readily apparent.

If some Mariners fans are inclined to think of Griffey as the multitalented, energetic "Kid" who took Seattle by storm in the 1990s rather than the late-career, twilight version, that's only human nature. Team president Chuck Armstrong, who regards Griffey with the same fondness that an uncle might reserve for a favorite nephew, made a splash in May 2008 when he told USA Today, "I think everybody in Seattle would like to see [Griffey] retire in a Mariners uniform. He was born a Mariner and I'd like to see him finish up as a Mariner."

The Mariners later tried to downplay the quote, but it's resurrected every time the Junior-returns angle is explored.

Have some teams been slow to inquire about Griffey this winter because they think a reunion with Seattle is inevitable?

"I'd rather not comment on that at this time while things are still in an active state," Goldberg said.

Nevertheless, Griffey's agent contends that a healthy Junior is closer to the 30 homer, 93-RBI version of 2007 than the guy who played on 1½ legs for much of last season. If you believe that Griffey could help the Mariners sell enough tickets to justify a $5 million investment and provide a bridge to outfielders Greg Halman and Michael Saunders, two of Seattle's top prospects, he looks like a low-risk proposition.

"Nobody wants to live in the past, but at the same time, you can't run away from it when it actually makes some sense," Goldberg said. "In a baseball sense, this would be more than just an emotional signing."

While the Zduriencik regime is trying to sift through the emotion and concentrate on making sound baseball decisions, that approach has ramifications beyond the makeup of the roster. In recent spring trainings, franchise favorites Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson and Edgar Martinez have been surrogate coaches at Seattle's camp in Peoria, Ariz. They won't be in big league camp this spring, in part because new manager Don Wakamatsu wants to give his staff some time to bond with the Seattle players.

"I had lunch with Edgar Martinez at a banquet the other day and gave him an open invitation to come down to the clubhouse during the year," Wakamatsu said. "I'm a big advocate of utilizing the players who've been there, understand the system and know the history. But with so much going on in spring training, I want us to have a close-knit group with the new coaching staff in trying to establish relationships."

Competition for jobs will be fierce in Peoria. With Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith in the mix, Seattle could have seven candidates for five starting spots. Mark Lowe, Miguel Batista, Tyler Walker, David Aardsma are potential candidates to replace Putz as closer. And with Ichiro and Johjima taking part in the World Baseball Classic, outfielder Wladimir Balentien and catcher Jeff Clement will get a real chance to show what they can do in Arizona.

"We're telling guys, 'In a 100-loss season, no one is safe,'" Wakamatsu said.

Zduriencik, for his part, insists he has no plans to sever the organization's ties to its glory days. The Mariners have invited Buhner to work with the minor leaguers in spring training, and Zduriencik recently talked to Wilson and Martinez about ways that they can stay involved.

"A lot of former Mariners players have made Seattle their home," Zduriencik said. "That tells you about their connection with the fans and the community and how much they've enjoyed it here. We would never shut the door to anybody who's been an integral part of this organization."

Do the Mariners have room in their budget, their lineup and the House that Griffey Built for a future Hall of Fame outfielder in search of a farewell tour? The clock is ticking on that question.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer