I've been asked twice in the last week about Ken Griffey Jr. It wasn't so long ago that Griffey was named to MLB's All-Century Team and considered a pretty decent bet to hit more home runs than anybody else ever hit. Remember, Griffey was the youngest player in major league history to reach both 350 and 400 home runs (though, granted, both Hank Aaron and the Babe Ruth hit more home runs in their 30s than in their 20s).
Remember, too, that while Griffey's $116.5 million contract today looks like a big ugly albatross around the franchise's neck, when he signed the unanimous opinion was that he was a huge bargain, with the Reds getting a splendid "hometown discount."
Instead, between Griffey's contract and Barry Larkin's contract (no discount on that one, by the way), the Reds have been physically disabled and financially paralyzed. Larkin's problems could easily have been predicted, but who could have guessed what would happen to Griffey?
2000: knee tendinitis, partially torn left hamstring
2001: torn left hamstring
2002: dislocated right kneecap, strained right hamstring
2003: dislocated shoulder, ruptured right ankle tendon
Of course, the Reds must pay Griffey $12.5 million this year -- and next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that -- whether he's healthy or not, so they're sort of forced to accentuate the positive, which is that he might, theoretically at least, get through an entire season without pulling or tearing or dislocating or rupturing something.
Like I said, the Reds do not, at this point, have much of a choice. The Brewers, on the other hand ...
Here's another gruesome little history:
2000: broken right middle finger
2001: right shoulder, bruised hand, torn thumb muscle
2002: dislocated right ankle
2003: broken thumb
Anybody care to hazard a guess? I already gave you a pretty great hint, but if you're not his wife or his doctor (or a Brewers fan) you're forgiven if you didn't recognize Geoff Jenkins' recent medical woes. And yes, that's the same Geoff Jenkins who was just signed by Milwaukee to a three-year, $23 million contract extension that begins in 2005.
Jenkins will actually be taking a pay cut next season, when he's scheduled to make $7 million; he's getting paid $8.5 million this season. So he's a bargain at $23 million over three seasons, right?
Maybe not. Jenkins is obviously one of the more talented hitters in the game, but he's just as obviously one of the gimpier hitters in the game. He's nearly 30 years old, and he's never played more than 135 games in one season. The last three seasons, he's played 105, 67, and 124 games.
Do those last three seasons tell us anything about how many games Jenkins will play in 2004 and beyond?
There are three "explanations" for injury problems like those suffered by Griffey and Jenkins.
One is that the player doesn't take care of himself, and so is prone to injuries (but doesn't have to be).
Another is that the player is naturally injury-prone (and can't do much to change that).
And one more is that the player has just been particularly unlucky (and presumably his bad luck won't last forever).
While I'm fairly sure that all three of these can accurately describe some players, I'm also fairly sure that the third possibility plays a bigger part than the other two put together. So does that mean Griffey and Jenkins are good bets to play at least 150 games apiece this season?
Not at all. I'm no doctor (nor do I play one on the Internet), but it seems to me that all those old injuries have to mean something. Even if they were the result of crummy luck more than anything else, don't some injuries have a tendency to recur?
Sure, but then the next question is, which injuries? And even if you compiled a massive database of injuries and recovery times and rates of recurrence, how do you account for the abilities of individual players to heal (or not) and the abilities of 21st-century doctors to facilitate the healing?
I don't know the answers to those questions, and I doubt if anyone else does, either. What I do know is that 1) the Reds are stuck with Griffey, and 2) the Brewers were not stuck with Jenkins; they didn't have to commit $23 million to Jenkins seven months before his existing contract expires. Oh, and 3) as much as the Brewers needed to reassure their fans that yes, they really are trying to win, they may well come to regret giving Jenkins a big new contract when there were still seven months left on the old big one.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.