<
>

Junior seeks health, happiness

The Ken Griffey Jr. era in Cincinnati has never really begun thanks mostly to injuries, abysmal pitching and 273 losses the last three years. Now there's a chance, perhaps even by Opening Day, that the Griffey era could end before it started.

A trade for Griffey Jr. is not imminent or even likely at this point. The Reds aren't motivated to deal him, but having won 69 games last year, they have to entertain all possibilities.

A trade could help him, the Reds and the team that deals for him. "The Reds have made no secret that they'll move him if they can get better," one general manager said. A new team could re-start Griffey's Hall of Fame career and allow the Reds to get what they need most: lots of pitching. Griffey has been on and off the trade market for over a year. In the winter of 2002, he was going to the Padres until Phil Nevin refused to accept a trade to Cincinnati. Last summer, the Reds and Yankees discussed a deal, but before it got close to completion, Griffey got hurt again.

Before a team trades for Griffey, it has to know which Griffey it is getting: the one who was the player of the decade in the 1990s, then the best player in the game, the only outfielder other than Willie Mays to hit 50 home runs in a Gold Glove season, or the cursed center fielder who hasn't played more than 111 games in a season since 2000, the guy who has hit fewer home runs (43) the last three years than, among others, Craig Wilson.

Griffey may never be a 50-homer, Gold Glove guy again, but if healthy, he is a remarkably talented player who is capable of more tremendous seasons. Given the horrific state of the Reds pitching -- they used 17 different starters last year; none won more than eight games -- a trade for Griffey could bring the Reds at least one needed arm. The Reds probably wouldn't have to be overwhelmed because of the long-term money they'd save on the deal. Griffey wouldn't object if a trade gave him a better chance to make the playoffs.

Some members of the Mariners organization are interested in re-acquiring Griffey, who remains popular in Seattle. There have been internal discussions about the possibility, especially since the Mariners really need another big bat in the middle of the order to go with Bret Boone. But other than a brief discussion between the two teams about a month ago, a trade is a long way from happening.

The Mariners have extra cash on hand after closer Kaz Sasaki went back to pitch in Japan, but it's unlikely that Seattle could make the deal unless the Reds picked up some of Griffey's contract, which has five years left, plus an option year, for roughly $65 million. The contract averages about $12.5 million a year over the next five years, but with deferred money stretching into nearly 2025, a team that traded for him would not have to pay, in the short term, more than roughly $6 million a year.

"I would think," said one GM, "that several teams would want him. He can be great again." The White Sox need a center fielder. The Dodgers need an outfielder who can hit.

There might be a concern for some teams (including some people with the Mariners) about a personality as big as Griffey disrupting team harmony, but after the last three years, he likely would be thrilled to ease his way into a new team, new lineup and new clubhouse.

Griffey is a Hall of Famer if he never plays another inning. The game is better when he's good. His swing is mechanically perfect. He's only 34 years old. He has proven this spring that he's healthy and strong again, and he has done everything that the Reds have asked. He has 481 career home runs; what team wouldn't want him in its uniform when he hits No. 500? And, friends say, he wants to show that he's still among the game's elite players.

He could do that in Cincinnati, and the Reds would be happy to have him. But chances are, he'd have a better chance doing it somewhere else, with a team with a better shot of winning.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.