Ken Griffey Jr. talked with his doctor about possibly having his left knee fixed midway through last season, but in the end, he decided to try to play through the problem, to play through the weakness.
"We shot it and we treated it and we rehabbed it," said Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the team physician for the Cincinnati Reds, "and the last thing in the world he wanted to do was to come out of the lineup and end his year early."
But Griffey could not put his full weight on the knee in the way he has done in the past, in his batting stance or as he chased fly balls, and he struggled offensively and defensively in 2008. "His power was off," said Kremchek. "If you can't push off [your legs], all your power is going to come from your chest and arms … If you watch videotape, you can see that he wasn't pushing off his legs."
Scouts saw it, for sure. As one talent evaluator said on Sunday night about Griffey, without knowledge of his knee trouble: "He doesn't have power anymore; he can't defend anymore. For me, he's a spare outfielder. He can't catch up to a good fastball anymore. The only ball he can hit over the fence now is a breaking ball that comes into him. Even if he's cheating, he has trouble catching up with a good fastball."
Three days after he finished the playoffs with the White Sox, he had surgery on the knee -- a cleanup of torn cartilage, and a torn meniscus. After the surgery, the surgeon told Griffey that he would be better off dropping some weight that he had added in recent years. And when Kremchek saw Griffey recently, he thought it is the best the outfielder has looked since the first years of this decade.
As teams look at Griffey, this is the kind of evaluation that can be weighed: Can Griffey, with his knee repaired and with some weight off, be the kind of player that he was in 2007, when he played in 144 games, hit 30 homers, batted .277 with a .372 on-base average, and drove in 93 runs?
Said Kremchek: "I told the Reds this -- he's going to be a different player [in 2009] than he was last year … He's got a lot to prove to people, that he can still put up good numbers and help a team. His feeling is, 'I will prove that I can still play,' and he's really put his mind to it. The guy can still hit, and he's more determined, and talking more about baseball than I've ever heard him talking about it before.
"And the guy knows how to play. How long he can last, I don't know the answer to that."
Nobody does. But Griffey, now 39, is working to extend a career that began two decades ago. There has been contact with the Mariners, but no formal offer, so Griffey continues to look for the best possible situation.
A general manager of a National League team chatted about Griffey and others on Monday, and he believes this: Given the kind of bargains now available to teams in the free agent market, there are going to be a handful of players who outperform the level of their salaries in 2009. There are going to be teams that look awfully smart, if they get a very productive player on the cheap, whether it be the Rays with Pat Burrell or the team that signs Adam Dunn -- or maybe the team that signs Griffey.