To stay in hunt, Reds must trade Griffey
Cincinnati doesn't need oft-injured outfielder — it needs pitching help
Al Behrman / AP

Ken Griffey Jr. came back in style Thursday night with a game-winning, three-run homer against the Nationals. But that just makes him more enticing for other teams, NBCSports.com contributor Mike Celizic writes.

What’s better for the Cincinnati Reds, keeping Ken Griffey Jr. and hoping he stays healthy enough to kick the team’s league-leading offense up yet another notch, or trading him for the pitching help the team will need if it wants to climb back into the playoffs?

I don’t know if Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky is thinking along those lines just yet, but he should be. And he should be leaning toward option B, the one in which he sees just what kind of pitching he can pry loose from which reckless GM in return for one of the greatest talents in the game.

Heck, what about the Yankees? They're in dire need of outfielders after Hideki Matsui suffered a broken wrist Thursday night.

A month ago, Griffey strained a tendon in his knee while running the bases. It wasn’t thought to be much, but, given his history of leg injuries, the team has been as cautious as a mouse in a snake farm in bringing him back.

Griffey finally returned Thursday to a lineup that is pumping out nearly 5 1/2 runs a game, the best in the National League, and to a first-place team that remains perhaps the most pleasant surprise in baseball. He fit in right away, belting a 3-run, game-winning homer in the 11th.

Cincinnati is Griffey’s home town, and he signed with the Reds at a considerable discount six years ago. At 36, he’s a certified first-ballot hall-of-famer, a slugger who will finish his career with 600-plus home runs, and, when he’s healthy, still one of the most feared hitters in the game.

And yet, Krivsky has to think about trading him.

The reason is straightforward enough. Although just 5-5 in their past 10, the Reds have gone 16-8 in Griffey’s absence and continue to occupy the top slot in the NL Central standings. They’ve won because they have one superior starting pitcher, a recycled closer who gets the job done and an embarrassment of offense, even with light-hitting second-baseman Ryan Freel taking Griffey’s place in center field. Freel’s replacement, Brandon Phillips, has good power and production, and the other two outfielders, Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn, are big-time power hitters.

With Griffey back in the lineup, the Reds will score even more. But, as the Yankees have shown repeatedly over the past five seasons, having the best offense in the game doesn’t translate into World Series wins. To win championships, you have to have pitching. That’s been the rule from the beginning of time.

The Reds are in first place thanks to the off-season acquisition of starter Bronson Arroyo, who went from mediocre in Boston to lights-out with the Reds, compiling an early-season 5-1 record with an ERA of 2.36, more than two runs lower than last year’s number in Boston.

If they want to stay there, they need another arm similar to Arroyo’s, not more offense. After Arroyo, the Reds pitching is mediocre at best; the team ERA was hovering around 4.50, which puts it solidly in the middle of National League staffs. Most important, the guys chasing the Reds, the Cardinals, have a team ERA nearly a full run lower.

Since the Cards have some significant offense of their own, it’s only a matter of time before the difference in pitching has its inevitable way with the standings and hoists St. Louis to the top of the NL Central.

The Reds are expecting to get starter Eric Milton back after having a knee scoped, but Milton never has been good enough to hold down anything but a spot in the back of the rotation, and there’s no reason to expect him to be a difference maker.

The Reds are fortunate that there’s still time before the trade frenzy begins in earnest. That time can be used to establish — and hope — that Griffey is reasonably healthy, which is to say as healthy as he was last season, and can provide some serious pennant insurance to a contender.

His contract, at $12.5 million a year and heavily back-loaded, has three more years on it. He’s also a five-and-ten player, so his approval will be needed before a trade can be made.

The catch is that no bottom-feeder will want to take on a contract that expensive, and contenders guard their front-line pitching like Dobermans protect junk yards. The Reds can get top prospects, but finding immediate help could be difficult.

The alternative is to keep Griffey, hope he prospers, then trade him in the off-season for that pitching help. In the American League, his health could benefit from DH’ing. In the National, there’s always someone willing to take a chance to get a bat like his.

Either way, the Reds should get something for a player who’s had one healthy season out of five and may not have another. They have a team that’s a contender, needing only better pitching to get back to the top.

Griffey could be the ticket to that pitching. It’s why Krivsky has to think about trading his most famous player, and trade him while other teams still think he has value.

Mike Celizic writes regularly for NBCSports.com and is a freelance writer based in New York.

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