You're starting a team tomorrow and you can have either Ken Griffey Jr. or Chipper Jones, but with this caveat: You will have the player for his entire career. Whom do you choose? This was a discussion raised around the "Baseball Tonight" campfire last week. Interesting arguments like this come up all the time; it's one of the fun parts of the job and the knee-jerk reaction in this case is to immediately say Griffey Jr. and his 630 career home runs and 10 straight Gold Gloves. Is that, however, the best answer?
Clearly, there's no wrong choice here. Both players were No. 1 overall draft picks and both players are headed to Cooperstown. What makes this decision complicated is its lone criteria: You must keep your player for the duration of his career, meaning you have to pay him while dealing with his unique personality, manner and injury history as he serves as the standard bearer for your franchise.
If the choice was between only the first 12 years of the players' careers, then the pick is almost certainly Griffey, although the gap in production between the two might not be as great as you presumed. Here's a look at the numbers for Griffey and Jones over their first 12 full seasons, excluding the eight games Jones played for the Braves in 1993.
Chipper Jones, 1995-2006, ages 23 to 34
.304/.402/.541, .943 OPS, 357 HRs, 1,198 RBIs, 0 Gold Gloves, 1 MVP
12-year average: 146 G, 30 HRs, 100 RBIs
Ken Griffey Jr., 1989-2000, ages 19 to 30
.296/.380/.568, .948 OPS, 438 HRs, 1,270 RBIs, 10 Gold Gloves, 1 MVP
12-year average: 140 G, 36 HRs, 106 RBIs
After this is where it gets complicated. Once Griffey passed 30 years old, his production declined, at times dramatically. Granted, he'd played 12 seasons by the time he hit age 31 but remember: you still have to meet your player's salary demands, deal with his occasional moods and injury issues and all that accompanies his status as your franchise cornerstone. Griffey hit .300 only once after the age of 27. Jones hit .300 seven times after turning 27, including a batting title in 2008, when he hit .364 as a 36-year old.
Jones had four, 25-homer seasons after the age of 30 compared to three for Griffey. Overall, Jones had five seasons of batting at least .300 with 30 HRs and 100 RBIs, while Griffey had only three such seasons. Four times, excluding his final season last year, Griffey had seasons in which he played fewer than 100 games. Jones had only one season of fewer than 100 games, last year. As this comparison shows, when looking at each player's final 10 full seasons, you will get more bang for your buck with Chipper. This comparison excludes the 33 games Griffey played before retiring from the Mariners last season and Chipper's 2011 season, which, of course, is not yet complete.
Chipper Jones, 2001-2010, ages 29 to 38
.308/.412/.536, .949 OPS, 246 HRs, 856 RBIs
10-year average: 133 G, 25 HRs, 86 RBIs
Ken Griffey Jr., 2000-2009, ages 30 to 39
.264/.358/.500, .857 OPS, 232 HRs, 677 RBIs
10-year average: 110 G, 23 HRs, 68 RBIs
This comparison is a bit misleading given the fact that it starts Griffey's clock with his first 11 major league seasons already complete while six of the seasons included for Jones are also included in his first 12. The second comparison however, does take place with the players at virtually the same ages, given that Griffey broke in as a 19-year-old in 1989 and Jones wasn't a rookie until 1995 at the age of 23, following the spring training knee injury that cost him the 1994 season.
What stands out are the three injury abbreviated seasons Griffey played for the Reds from 2002 through 2004. During that span, from ages 32 to 34, Griffey batted .255/.358/.501 and averaged only 14 home runs, 36 RBIs and 69 games per season. He did enjoy a power renaissance for three seasons following that span, but there's no ignoring that Griffey's career took a significant downturn following his first season in Cincinnati in 2000. Griffey hit 630 career home runs but only 192 after he turned 31 years old. Including this season, Chipper Jones has hit 443 career home runs but 190 from age 31 on and that meter is still running.
Ken Griffey Jr. is beloved in Seattle, as he should be. Safeco Field is The House That Griffey Built. His four-season run from 1996 through 1999 is legendary; a span that saw him average 52 homers and 142 RBIs while batting .294/.381/.615. Chipper Jones' best four-season stretch came from 1998 through 2001 when he averaged 38 homers and 108 RBIs while batting .318/.419/.587 with a 1.006 OPS. For each player, that career peak came from ages 26 through 29.
Again, because our criteria here means taking the player for his entire career, warts and all, I'll select Chipper Jones. I'll sacrifice the offensive and defensive stratosphere in which Griffey Jr. excelled for the first decade of his career in exchange for the steady durability and 30-something production that Jones' total body of work has provided. In fact, one benefit of this exercise may be in realizing how underrated Chipper Jones has been over the course of his now 18-year career while at the same time appreciating Griffey's brilliance.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.