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Veteran right-hander Felix Hernandez has opted out of his minor-league contract with the Baltimore Orioles and become a free agent, the team announced Monday. Hernandez suffered an elbow injury early in spring training, and although he recently threw a bullpen session, he simply ran out of time to win a spot in the O's rotation.

Baltimore will start John Means, Matt Harvey, and rookie Bruce Zimmermann in their first three regular season games in that order. Dean Kremer and Jorge Lopez are the top candidates for the final two rotation spots. Hernandez would have earned a $1 million base salary at the MLB level had he made the Opening Day roster.

Hernandez, 35 in April, allowed six runs in 5 2/3 spring innings before the elbow injury. He was very good with the Braves last spring (three runs in 13 2/3 innings), though he opted out of the season, citing health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Hernandez has not pitched in an MLB game since Sept. 2019, when he was still with the Mariners.

Presumably Hernandez will look to catch on with another team, or maybe even return to the Orioles. It's not uncommon for veterans to opt out of their contracts and then re-sign on a new minor-league contract with different terms this time of year. Either way, Hernandez will need time to prepare for the season. He couldn't jump right into a rotation.

There is also a very real chance Hernandez has already thrown his final MLB pitch. He dealt with injuries and was ineffective from 2018-19, throwing 227 1/3 innings with a 5.82 ERA, and now his elbow is giving him problems. Hernandez's velocity has been way down in recent years and he's been unable to find success with diminished stuff.

If this indeed the end of the line, Hernandez will go down as one of the best pitchers of his generation. In parts of 15 seasons he threw 2,729 2/3 innings with a 3.42 ERA and 2,524 strikeouts. It works out to 50.3 WAR. Hernandez is a seven-time All-Star, he won the 2010 AL Cy Young award, was runner-up in 2009 and 2014, and he threw a perfect game in 2012.

Hernandez undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame peak. From 2008-14, he averaged nearly 230 innings per season with a 2.82 ERA that was 38 percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark. Felix led all pitchers in innings (1,595) those years and was third in WAR (37.4) behind Clayton Kershaw (40.8) and Cliff Lee (37.5).

In a way, Hernandez is the pitching version of Andruw Jones. Both debuted at age 19 and were on a Hall of Fame track through their 20s, then they were simply done as above-average players at age 31. Jones has topped out at 33.9 percent in his four years on the Hall of Fame ballot (75 percent is needed for induction). Hernandez is facing a similar uphill battle given his lack of longevity.

With all due respect to Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, King Felix is the greatest pitcher in Mariners history. He is the franchise's all-time leader in innings (2,729 1/3), starts (419), wins (169), strikeouts (2,524), and pitching WAR (50.3). Hernandez was a tippy top prospect back in the day and he more than lived up to the bullpen.

Sadly, Hernandez has never had the opportunity to pitch in the postseason. The Mariners have not made the postseason since 2001, four years before Hernandez debuted, and his 418 career starts are the sixth most among pitchers with zero postseason appearances:

  1. Fergie Jenkins: 594 starts
  2. Jim Bunning: 519 starts
  3. Ted Lyons: 484 starts
  4. Mel Harder: 433 starts
  5. Larry Jackson: 429 starts
  6. Felix Hernandez: 419 starts

There's still a chance Hernandez will sign with another team -- pitchers with his pedigree always seem to get another opportunity -- and reach the postseason. Even though Felix's best days are long gone, the baseball fan in me hopes he latches on somewhere and has a signature moment in October. It would be very cool.

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