|King Felix, as you might expect, is at the heart of the Mariner core. (Getty Images/EOB)|
Our ongoing "Core Values" series continues with the Seattle Mariners, who are coming off three straight last-place finishes in the AL West.
As for what actually defines a "core" in our unscientific series, here's a refresher. Feel free to skip over the blockquotes if you've been with us since the start.
|Core Values series|
What's a core? For our purposes, a team's core comprises a "cornerstone player," a "face of the franchise" and then the "future face of the franchise."
So what's a "cornerstone player"? For starters, it's one of the best players on the roster and perhaps the very best player on the roster. Beyond that, though, it's the player whom the organization has identified as the talent around which to build by signing him to a long-term deal. In other words, they've backed their faith in the player's abilities with the most powerful statement of all: lots of redeemable U.S. currency. Not only do they see this player as central to their current aims but also to their designs on future contention.
What's a "face of the franchise"? He -- and we're getting subjective here -- is the player who most prominently embodies the franchise in question. He's that player whom you think about when you think about this team. Is he the same guy as the "cornerstone"? Sometimes. But the cornerstone is primarily a financial designation. The "face" is, for lack of a better term, a cultural identifier. They're not mutually exclusive, but they're not not mutually exclusive, either. What about the word "values" that you see in the headline above? After we identify and evaluate the three elements of the core, we're going to slap a letter grade on the whole thing.
And now on to the core of the Mariners ...
Cornerstone player(s): Felix Hernandez
The Mariners don't have any salary commitments beyond 2014. So Hernandez -- who's three seasons into a five-year, $78 million pact -- it is. That's fitting, of course. But will the Mariners do what it takes to retain Hernandez, who'll be eligible for free agency after the 2014 season?
CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman has already reported that Hernandez might seek a six-year pact. So if the M's are going to keep Hernandez in the fold, they're going to have to pay the going rates. Hernandez is undoubtedly the Seattle cornerstone. The question is how long he remains the cornerstone.
Face(s) of the franchise: Hernandez
Easy call. Survey the Seattle roster, and King Felix towers above the rest. The 26-year-old uber-ace won the AL Cy Young in 2010 and finished second in the balloting in 2009 and fourth in 2012. For his career, Hernandez boasts an ERA+ of 127 in 1,620 1/3 innings. He has also won an ERA title and struck out at least 200 batters in a season four times. Durability? He has reeled off five straight seasons of at least 200 innings pitched, and he hasn't been on the DL since 2008.
What's also impressive is how Hernandez has remade himself. As Pitch F/X data show, Hernandez has lost almost 4.0 mph on his fastball since 2007. That normally could wreck a young pitcher. But, as you might have noticed, Hernandez hasn't lost any effectiveness to go with the loss of velocity. How has he compensated? Generally speaking, by adding oomph to his splitter, throwing his changeup more often and getting more horizontal movement on almost all his offerings. In other words, he has become a more adaptive pitcher. It's a transition that most pitchers in their 30s face, but Hernandez has shown the poise and smarts to pull it off starting in his early 20s. That bodes well for his ability to continue pitching at a high level.
Face(s) of the future: Taijuan Walker and Jesus Montero
If the Mariners had Hernandez locked up beyond 2014, then he'd obviously occupy at least part of this spot. But his uncertain future in Seattle means the honor falls elsewhere.
The 20-year-old Walker boasts a full repertoire that's fronted by a fastball that touches the high 90s and flashes good late movement. Last season, Walker endured some fits and starts in Double-A, but that was as a 19-year-old. Everything about him -- provided he stays healthy, of course -- says "future ace."
As for Montero, don't be put off by last season's superficially unimpressive batting line. Note that Montero, in his age-22 season, batted a more respectable .295/.330/.438 away from Safeco. As he matures, those numbers will improve. And, of course, Safeco isn't going to be such a pitcher's haven anymore. It's not certain how long Montero will be able to stick at catcher, but he very much profiles as a middle-of-the-order hitter regardless of his position.
Grading the Mariners' Core: B+
While GM Jack Zduriencik has done a highly dubious job of surrounding the Seattle core with an adequate supporting cast (Raul Ibanez? Jason Bay? Way too many DHs on the roster ...), Hernandez, Walker and Montero make for an impressive foundation. The lack of a position player who's a force in the here and now (Montero isn't that, but he soon will be) drops the M's just a bit, but the grade remains high. Seattle won't contend in 2013, but that's not the fault of the core.
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