Could Julio Rodríguez be Better Than Junior Griffey?

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There must be something about the Seattle Mariners and greatness. Despite being only about 45 years old, the franchise has fielded several legendary players. It has yet to result in a World Series title, but it has delighted fans in “The Rain City.”

If you haven’t noticed, the team is at it again, with a dynamic young center fielder, Julio Rodríguez, who was named 2022 American League Rookie of the Year. Rodríguez is so talented and so fun to watch that he has some observers comparing him to Ken Griffey Jr., the greatest Mariner ever.

The team seems to think J-Rod has the potential to rewrite the franchise history: they gave him a seven-year, $119 million contract extension that will keep him in Seattle through at least 2029.

Is that a fair comparison? Could anyone impact Seattle baseball like Junior did? Is it possible for Rodríguez to be an even better player than Griffey?

Why Seattle Loves J-Rod

Julio Rodríguez is the most exciting young player in baseball because he has the potential to be a five-tool star. He has power, speed, athleticism, and a strong arm. He is also a very good hitter, with a combination of power and average. He is still young and has room to grow, but he has already shown that he is a special player.

“This is a beautiful game when you play it the right way,” Rodríguez said in a recent Sports Illustrated article. “I feel like there are a lot of people that, um, how do you say it? They take the game too serious. And I feel like they forget about the joy of this.”

Rodríguez has already made a big impact on the Mariners. He is the team’s best player and was a major reason for their return to the playoffs in 2022. He is also a fan favorite, with his exciting style of play and his charisma.

Here are some specific examples of Rodríguez’s exciting play:

  • Julio became the first rookie to collect 25 stolen bases and 25 home runs.
  • The 15th player since 1961 to have a .500+ slugging percentage before the age of 22.
  • The second-youngest rookie to post a .500+ slugging percentage since 1961 (only Mike Trout was younger)
  • He has made several highlight-reel plays in the outfield.
  • Julio is the third center fielder in the All-Star Game era to be an All-Star and hit as many as 20 home runs and have a .500 slugging percentage. The others are Fred Lynn and Trout.

“He’s a very mature player for his age. He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s got a lot of swagger. He’s got a lot of energy. He’s just a lot of fun to be around,” said Mariners teammate Robbie Ray last season.

Sports Illustrated has already put Julio on its cover twice, even though the star has played just 132 games at the major league level. Is it hype? Can the young star handle the pressure?

This spring, when Rodríguez played for his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, he was the most popular player on a star-studded team. Fans flocked for his autograph. His uniform was among the best-selling for the WBC. Rodríguez is an international superstar.

Rodríguez is the future of baseball. He is the player that fans will be watching for years to come, in the northwest, and across major league baseball. He’s the player that will make baseball exciting again. He has an amazing smile too. Does that sound familiar, Seattle?

Why Ken Griffey Jr. was Special

What couldn’t Ken Griffey Jr. do? It seemed as if the baseball gods touched his mama’s belly and gave him special powers. In a remarkable 22-year career, “Junior” did things that placed him among the greatest to ever step on a diamond. He did many of his most thrilling things in Seattle.

A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and a thirteen-time All-Star, Griffey was one of the most prolific home run hitters in baseball history; his 630 home runs rank as the seventh-most in MLB history. Griffey was also an exceptional defender and won ten Gold Glove Awards in center field. Oh, and he also won seven Silver Slugger Awards, and was named Most Valuable Player in 1997 when he hit 56 home runs and drove in 147 runs.

In Griffey’s last seven seasons as a Mariner, from 1993-1999, he averaged 107 runs, 44 home runs, 115 RBI, 15 stolen bases, a .297 batting average, and a .613 slugging percentage. He also won a Gold Glove in every one of those seasons.

Griffey is the centerpiece of the most famous play in Seattle Mariners franchise history. In the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 5 of their AL Division Series against the Yankees, the Mariners trailed by a run. With a runner at first, Griffey singled through the infield. The next batter, Edgar Martinez, lined a pitch down the left field line. The tying run scored easily, as Griffey motored from first base all the way around to slide safely ahead of the throw. The Mariners won, 6-5, and advanced to the League Championship Series. The sight of Griffey, under a pile of his teammates at home plate, is probably the most iconic moment in Seattle sports history. Many have said that the play, and the series win, saved Seattle baseball.

Even when Griffey was later traded away, the hearts of Seattle baseball fans always stayed attached to Junior. He returned years later to finish his career in a Mariners uniform, and practically every time he went to the plate in Seattle, he received a standing ovation.

Like Rodríguez, Griffey was a baseball prodigy. But Junior did it at an even younger age.

Junior made his major league debut on April 3, 1989, at the age of 19. He quickly became one of the most popular players in baseball, known for his powerful swing and his ability to make spectacular catches in center field. He wore his hat backwards, so kids did too. He smiled a lot and admired his home runs, and kids mimicked that too. Griffey finished third for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1989, when he was still a teenager.

The one Thing Rodríguez can do to Eclipse Junior

Since the Mariners came into the American League in 1977, the franchise has been struggling to get to the top of baseball. For many years, it was a futile effort. But when Griffey Jr. arrived in the late 1980s, he ushered in the golden era of Mariners baseball. Yet, even with Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez joining Griffey on the team, the M;s never even won a pennant. Later, Ichiro Suzuki helped the team to the playoffs, even winning an amazing 116 games one season. Still, a pennant eluded them.

The 2022 Mariners broke a 21-year postseason drought. Now, with Rodríguez leading them, they must return to the playoffs and do what Griffey & Co. could never accomplish: win the pennant and get to the World Series.

Imagine how Seattle sports fans would react if their Mariners finally played in a Fall Classic?

That’s the success Rodríguez must help deliver in order to surpass even Junio Griffey as the franchise icon. He’s young enough, appealing enough, and he can do so many things on the diamond. If Rodríguez were to perform well in October baseball and lead the M’s to a world championship, many fans would lift him to the top among all Mariners.

That journey starts in 2023. Enjoy the ride, Seattle.


Seattle Mariners stories >
Seattle Mariners All-Time Team >
100 Greatest Center Fielders of All-Time >

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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Boyd Branch
Boyd Branch
1 year ago

My dads friend is Tim Kissner a former Mariners scout now Juneau PD, he was one of the people to sign Julio.