Thursday, November 04, 1999

Rent Griffey? Only with option to buy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ken Griffey Jr. is worth a shot. He is worth Jim Bowden's best shot. He is worth blowing the budget and ravaging the farm system and forsaking the master plan and up to five minutes of interrogation by Jim Gray. But not if you only get him for one year.

        Baseball's most dynamic player has been placed on the trading block after 11 spectacular seasons with the Seattle Mariners, and potential bidders are warned to be wary. Griffey is one year from free agency, one year away from being able to sell his serv ices on the open market, and thus one year away from potentially turning a blockbuster deal into a bonehead decision.

        Griffey might agree to come home to play for the Reds — to be reunited with his father and five-way chili — but he might decide next season that he'd rather be somewhere else. If I'm Bowden, and considering parting with key players or top prospects, this is a little more risk than I want to run. If you can't sign Ken Griffey Jr. to a long-term contract, you have to wonder about the wisdom of getting him at all.

        Why trade prime talent for an expensive player you might later acquire at an open auction? Why sacrifice Sean Casey or Pokey Reese or Scott Williamson for a single season of an All-Century center fielder?

        “Obviously, you'd have to be concerned about it,” Bowden, the Reds general manager, said Wednesday. “But an opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime — to trade for a player of that caliber. If you get him and you win and you sell the house out and his dad's there, maybe he'd want to stay ... We certainly are going to try to make every attempt to be a player in this.”

        As of 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, Bowden had talked with Mariners General Manager Pat Gillick three times in two days. Their conversations will continue at the forthcoming general managers meetings, where Gillick will try to piece together a trade package to make Griffey's departure more palatable on Puget Sound.

        Because Griffey intends to test the free-agent market next year regardless of where he spends the 2000 season, Gillick's leverage is limited. It's hard to expect fair value for a franchise player who is available only on a rental basis. Mariners President Chuck Armstrong only compli cates Gillick's bargaining position when he says he does not expect to allow other teams to negotiate with Griffey in advance of a deal.

        Some of this works to the Reds' advantage. If the Mariners must settle for significantly less than what Griffey is worth, Cincinnati's home-field advantage and Bowden's persistence and ingenuity could make a decisive difference.

        Atlanta is considered the team most likely to land Griffey. The Braves' spring training base is only a few miles from the player's home in Orlando, and owner Ted Turner has both the talent and the funds to get deals done. Yet if the Braves refuse to include center fielder Andruw Jones in a Griffey deal — and there have been some mixed messages on this score — the competition could be keen.

        If Bowden can get Griffey without giving up Casey, Reese or Williamson, he should proceed apace.

        “We don't know what the price in player talent is going to be,” Bowden said. “Obviously, we don't have an Andruw Jones to put in a Ken Griffey deal. But I think our farm system at this stage can match up with theirs as far as premium prospects.”

        When the Texas Rangers sent two-time Most Valuable Player Juan Gonzalez to Detroit Tuesday in a nine-player deal, they were willing to trade for potential instead of proof. Two of the more prominent players the Rangers acquired were starting pitcher Justin Thompson, who has had two arm oper ations in three years, and reliever Francisco Cordero, who started last season at Double-A.

        Even at that, the Tigers might have been taking the greater gamble. Like Griffey, Gonzalez is part of the free-agent class of 2000. If he bolts, it's going to look bad.

        “Sometimes you have to dare to be good,” said Detroit General Manager Randy Smith. “This is a special player and we reached out to get it done.”

        Jim Bowden's daring is never in doubt. How far he will reach for Ken Griffey Jr. depends primarily on how far he is allowed to reach. All indications about Carl Lindner's new ownership group suggest slow growth and infrequent splurging. The Mariners' most recent offer to Griffey was estimated at eight years and $140 million. That kind of money is a tough sell in a small market.

        “We all have budgets we have to work under,” Bowden said. “(But) I think Ken Griffey Jr. is one of only three players who can single-handedly pack the house. The others are Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. I think the Reds fans would buy the season tickets to make it worthwhile.”

        Maybe so. Ken Griffey Jr. is a singular talent, a superlative center fielder, and the man most likely to surpass Hank Aaron as baseball's all-time home run leader.

        If you can get him at a discount, you have to go for it. If you get to keep him, the price doesn't matter so much.

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