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Originally published Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Mariners must make decision on Griffey soon

GM Jack Zduriencik is considering free-agent options.

Seattle Times staff reporter

With spring training opening in less than two weeks, the Mariners will very soon have to make the decision that has been looming over the team all offseason.

Will they bring back the franchise's most storied player, Ken Griffey Jr.?

Their ultimate call on Griffey seems closely linked to the outcome of other pursuits by general manager Jack Zduriencik.

If the Mariners can fill their lingering need for an offensive boost with a free agent or a trade, then the likelihood of a Griffey reunion lessens.

But if Zduriencik comes up empty in pursuit of free-agent outfielder Bobby Abreu or others, then he will have an agonizing choice.

Does he bow to nostalgia and the prospect that Griffey, energized by offseason knee surgery and what figures to be a hugely enthusiastic fan base at Safeco Field, can summon up echoes of his past?

Detractors, however, point to the fact that Griffey's best days are long behind him, and that he doesn't fit in with the massive rebuilding job being undertaken by the new Mariners regime.

Griffey, 39, has more home runs (611) than all but four men in history. He's a free agent for the first time.

Though other teams reportedly have interest, one factor no longer in question is that Griffey very much wants to return to Seattle. He was a larger-than-life force from 1987, when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Mariners, until 1999, when he orchestrated a trade to the Reds.

"I know he'd love to be back there," said former Seattle teammate Harold Reynolds, now an analyst for the fledgling MLB Network. "I don't know what they're waiting for. He's personally told me he'd love to be in Seattle."

Reynolds, a close friend of Griffey's, believes it's a perfect match.

"I would love it," Reynolds said. "I think they need to do it. He's such an icon to the game of baseball. He's going to play one more year, maybe two at the most. He needs to retire as a Mariner. He's still got something left. I think he'd be fantastic for that team."

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Griffey is coming off a struggling year with the Reds and White Sox, in which he hit .249 with 18 homers and 71 runs batted in. But Griffey's camp points to the fact that he played much of the year with a sore left knee that prevented him from driving with his plant leg.

They believe that 2007, when Griffey hit 30 homers for the Reds, is more reflective of his production potential. Griffey underwent arthroscopic surgery on the knee in October.

Brian Goldberg, Griffey's agent, said Tuesday his client is being patient as he waits out a stymied marketplace. Nearly 100 free agents remain unsigned.

"We're still talking to a few teams out there, and Junior totally understands he's the fallback guy for a few of these teams," Goldberg said. "So probably a couple more of these younger guys with longer contract desires are going to have to sign before something shakes out with Junior."

Asked if the Mariners were one of those teams, Goldberg said, "I don't want to get too specific, but we have had some dialogue this offseason."

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong was quoted recently in the Portland Business Journal as telling a meeting of Portland business leaders that he met with Griffey's representative last Wednesday.

Armstrong clarified Tuesday that he didn't meet with Goldberg in person but rather spoke to him on the phone. He wouldn't elaborate on the status of negotiations.

According to the Portland Business Journal, Armstrong told the Portland audience the Mariners were looking at Abreu and free-agent outfielder Garret Anderson.

Armstrong told USA Today last May, "I think everybody in Seattle would like to see [Griffey] retire in a Mariners uniform. He was born a Mariner and I'd like to see him finish up as a Mariner."

That coincided with Griffey's comment in 2007, when he received a hero's welcome upon returning to Safeco with the Reds. He told FSN's Angie Mentink, "I think I owe it to the people of Seattle, and myself, to retire as a Mariner."

If that happens, Reynolds said that the Mariners would be getting a much different person than the one who left a decade ago.

"The biggest change is he's a man now," Reynolds said. "When he played in Seattle, he was just a youngster, just a kid. Now he's a mature man who understands what young players need. I think he's ready to give that back. I've seen it."

Abreu's agent, Peter Greenberg, said last week that the M's told him they couldn't sign his client without clearing room in their budget. They are reportedly investigating the trade market for pitcher Jarrod Washburn, who will make $10.35 million this season.

The argument could be made, however, that Griffey, believed to be looking for a one-year deal in the $5 million to $6 million base salary range, would pay for himself with the boost in attendance he would provide. That's no small consideration in this sagging economy, which is challenging every sports team.

Zduriencik wouldn't comment on Griffey or any other specific free agent, but he said the Mariners had "a little bit of flexibility" in their budget.

"There are things we'd like to do," Zduriencik said. "If we're not able to do it, that's OK. I'm anxious to get to spring training and watch everyone compete."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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