Senior Writer

Mariners camp report: Depose King Felix? Surely you jest


PEORIA, Ariz. -- Part of today's baseball world is this: Even after Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez signed a five-year, $78 million extension a year ago January, armchair general managers continue to envision ways to trade him.

"I love it in Seattle," Hernandez says. "That's why I signed for five years."

Yeah, but the Mariners lost 101 games and ...

"And after those five years, if I can sign another one, that would be good," Hernandez continues. "I'd love to stay here."

Yeah, but from the team's perspective, if they could move their 24-year-old ace for five or six prospects to jump-start a quick rebuilding process and ...

"That ain't happening," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik says flatly. "We've got [pitching prospect] Michael Pineda coming, we've got some other pieces ... he's staying right here."

Which is exactly where Felix Hernandez belongs.

In Seattle. Pitching. Every fifth day. In Seattle.

Seattle Mariners
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And any other scenario is flat-out lunacy.

Granted, the Mariners last year were the Bad News Bears of the American League.

And granted, the 2011 club I've watched this spring doesn't exactly seem poised for a worst-to-first reversal.

But in Hernandez, who turns 25 on April 8, the Mariners have the most essential piece there is for a quick turnaround: A legitimate ace. Also, the cornerstone piece for any title contender.

Look at what last year's 90-win Padres did when Mat Latos ascended to that role. And Latos is no Felix.

The Mariners are trying to get better as quickly as possible. Hernandez moves the ball significantly closer to the end zone in that department more than any plane-load of prospects.

Plus, at least two things are blatantly wrong with the idea of the Mariners trading Hernandez.

One, so the Yankees need pitching. Why should the Mariners trip over themselves to serve as a New York farm team?

Two, what about the responsibility of an organization to its fans? Aside from Ichiro, Hernandez these days is one of the few slam-dunk reasons to watch the Mariners. And the team should take that away from its fans, too?

Fantasy Writer

Sleeper ... Justin Smoak: Yeah, it looked bad, but Smoak's rookie season wasn't a total loss. The 24-year-old made measurable progress over the course of the season. It probably didn't stand out because his numbers were so bad already, but in September, after the Mariners called him back up from the minors, he hit .340 with three homers in 50 at-bats, showing the combination of power and patience that made him such an enticing prospect to begin with. Most likely, Smoak is following in the footsteps of Justin Morneau, Adrian Gonzalez and countless others who struggled in their major-league debuts before turning the corner later, only we've already seen signs of him turning the corner. And the best part is you can get him for next to nothing on Draft Day.

Bust ... Ichiro Suzuki: Not much momentum for this pick, really, but you can't deny the lack of regression is starting to feel more than a little unnatural. A 37-year-old in the early rounds? That shouldn't happen. Last year, Ichiro's slugging percentage was under .400 for only the second time in his career, both coming in the last three seasons. Couple that with his career-high 86 strikeouts, and you get the impression his impeccably controlled bat is slowing down. So are his legs. He rebounded last year, but he stole just 26 bases in 2009, a development that should continue in his late 30s. Ichiro has a long way to fall and probably won't do it all at once, but as a player who needs to hit .330-.350 to justify his price tag, he's on a slippery slope.

Can't-miss prospect ... Dustin Ackley: Yeah, the Mariners acquired Brendan Ryan to play second base, but no one really buys that as a long-term solution, right? Ackley was the best hitter in a draft class headed by Stephen Strasburg, which should tell you everything you need to know about his upside. Some question his power, especially coming off an uninspiring minor-league debut, but he more or less put an end to those doubts by hitting .424 with four homers and a 1.338 OPS in the Arizona Fall League, setting a record for on-base percentage and capturing MVP honors. Even if Ackley isn't a 20-homer guy right away, his incredible batting eye should help him succeed right away, perhaps making him another Dustin Pedroia. That's talent worth stashing.

-- Scott White
Mariners outlook | Depth Chart | 2011 Draft Prep

Here's a kid who loves Seattle, bought a house there, happily participates in FanFest each winter, eagerly does what he's asked ... and then annihilates hitters every five days all summer long.

He works hard, leads by example, never lets down. He is a huge asset across the board: Inside the clubhouse, to the team, to the franchise, to the city.

"He cut his teeth in this organization, signing at the age he signed at [16]," Zduriencik says. "He's been here all along, he wants to stay, he's happy to be here. Obviously, he committed to being here, and the organization committed to him.

"If you're a fan and you're living in Seattle and you know that one of your stars has decided this is where he wants to be, that's a great thing. It's a great thing for an organization, for the city, for the community, it's a great thing for him."

Randy Johnson pretty much forced the Mariners to trade him in 1998. Ken Griffey Jr.'s trade request was granted in 2000. Alex Rodriguez ditched Seattle for free-agent money.

Maybe, eventually, Hernandez will change his mind and want out, too.

But when he signs a five-year deal and then says he hopes he signs another long-term deal in Seattle after that, why should the Mariners even consider ushering yet another star out of town?

"He's going to be a huge part of this thing," Zduriencik says. "He's obviously a big part of it now, and he's going to be a huge part of it once we get this thing where we want to get it. It's just a wonderful set of circumstances."

What too often becomes lost amid today's Fantasy Baseball, players-as-commodity way of thinking is the game's soul. When a talent as rare as Hernandez shoots across the sky, sometimes it actually is best viewed in the present, not projected out into a future of what-ifs and might-bes.

In the end, just one team wins the World Series. Eight clubs make the playoffs. The other 22 have to get through the summer somehow, to varying degrees. And in Seattle, win or lose, Hernandez makes life far more palatable for the Mariners, and far more enjoyable for their fans.

"He reminds me of a Roy Halladay or a CC Sabathia," Mariners third baseman Chone Figgins says. "Those guys don't give in any, and that's what he reminds me of."

Sabathia nearly took Cleveland to the World Series in 2007. And though it ultimately didn't work, Toronto was not wrong in trying to build around Halladay for so long.

"All clubs are looking for that anchor for their staff," Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis says.

In Hernandez, Seattle already has it. And there is value beyond what he does every fifth day, too. Highly touted prospect Pineda, for starters, watches every one of Hernandez's bullpens. Felix has taken the kid under his wing, and there are others, too.

"That's another thing most people don't realize with Felix," Willis says. "Spring drills, PFP [pitchers' fielding practice] ... when your best guy does it with energy and does it right, everybody's going to follow.

"It was like that in Minnesota, with Puck [Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett]. When your marquee guy runs out every ball, that lays down, 'This is how we're going to do it.' ...

"At 24, he's maturing physically, and he's an unbelievable competitor. And he's one of the hardest working guys we've got."

And Seattle should take all of this, wrap it up and tie it in a bow for ... the Yankees? Or some city to be named later?

"I want to make the playoffs," says Hernandez, who has partial no-trade powers [he can list up to 10 teams to whom he will decline a deal]. "I want to win a World Series. I want to win another Cy Young Award. I want to play in more All-Star Games.

"There are a lot of things I want to do. But I just go day by day, I come in here and I work hard."

It's what he learned, he says, from Mariners who came before him -- pitchers like Joel Piñeiro, Jeff Nelson and Eddie Guardado. And pitching coaches such as Willis, Bryan Price, Rafael Chaves, Mel Stottlemyre and Rick Adair.

What is it about this place that Hernandez loves so much?

"The city," he says. "The fans. The organization. Everything."

Yeah, the Mariners should move this guy out of town as quickly as possible for the best deal they can get.



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