How the Mariners botched the King Felix era, but are trying to fix it
The Mariners may have missed the Hernandez prime window, but there's still some hope
They've lost the first two games of their biggest series of the year -- one of their biggest series in the past fifteen years. Now, in a game they can't afford to lose if they hope to keep their slim playoff hopes alive (2.9 percent chance, according to SportsLine odds), they're sending their ace to the mound ... and everyone's secretly terrified about it.
No team in baseball owns a longer playoff drought than the Seattle Mariners. And few pitchers have had a bigger fall from grace in the past two years than Felix Hernandez. Where both go from here is a wide-open question.
You can trace Seattle's woes all the way back to 2007, when the Mariners pulled off one of the luckiest seasons in baseball history, going 88-74 despite scoring 19 fewer runs than they allowed. The blockbuster trade that followed the next offseason -- veteran left-hander Erik Bedard for a megapackage of five prospects that would give the Orioles an All-Star outfielder and a young ace -- was the biggest of several personnel misfires that ensured the M's would spend the next decade trying to approach that record again. Two and a half months into the following season, the M's fired GM Bill Bavasi, well before the trade would reveal the ample talents of Adam Jones and Chris Tillman and start to look really bad.
It took another seven years before the Mariners would contend for a playoff spot. In 2014, Seattle won 87 games, finishing just a game behind the A's for the AL's second wild-card spot. Once again, expectations surged. GM Jack Zduriencik, hoping to build on that near-miss, made a splashy move of his own, signing veteran slugger Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $57 million deal. This time, the big offseason move worked, as Cruz bashed 44 homers and led the team in Wins Above Replacement. Unfortunately, the rest of the team stunk: The M's swooned to 76-86, and Zduriencik didn't make it through the end of August. The burden of high expectations had come crashing down on Seattle once again.
New general manager Jerry Dipoto opted not to take the splashy route in his first Hot Stove season with Seattle, avoiding blockbuster trades and high-profile free agents. You could follow the logic of many of his smaller moves too. Under Zduriencik, the Mariners tried to outslug the competition, without factoring in the nature of Safeco Field -- a pitcher's park, albeit one not as extreme as it used to be before the team altered its dimensions. Dipoto's moves thus focused largely on improving the defense and building a more balanced roster.
When it comes to achieving that goal of improved defense and balance, Dipoto's moves have looked good. The M's still rate as a slightly below-average defensive team this season ... but they're also about 40 runs better than they were last year when they finished dead last in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved, per Baseball Info Solutions. On the other hand, some of the players they traded away have flourished on other teams: Mark Trumbo and Brad Miller have combined to bash 71 home runs this season, with Trumbo leading the majors in long balls. You could argue that this was a case of smart process with middling results, that no one could have expected Trumbo would turn into a beast of this magnitude, and that the latest giveaway to the Orioles has softened the blow a bit with his lousy second half. In any case, it's fair to say that the Mariners' personnel changes over the past year have delivered mixed results.
There's actually an optimistic way to diagnose this season, even if the M's do miss the playoffs for a 15th straight time -- a fate that looks likely, given they're three games out of the second wild-card, with 11 games to go and three teams to leapfrog to claim that spot. Consider the extent of the pitching injuries that ripped through the roster. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, the two young starters who brought high hopes into this season, have combined to make just 41 starts. Nate Karns, the 28-year-old right-hander who was supposed to be the linchpin of the Miller trade and also a rotation stabilizer, has been out for nearly two months with a back injury and might not pitch again this year. The most crushing blow came when Hernandez hit the DL in late May, suffering a calf injury that would sideline him for two months.
If Dipoto's trying to objectively evaluate his team's performance and skill level and avoid some of the franchise's past mistakes, he could argue that 85 wins and a playoff near-miss aren't all that bad, all those injuries considered. He could further argue that the Mariners now employ one of the best in-his-prime players in baseball in Kyle Seager, the 28-year-old mashing third baseman who's developed into the team's top player this season.
Beneath that mildly optimistic view is one that's far tougher to think about, and more depressing, for Mariners fans: That the team has wasted the best years of a potential Hall of Fame pitcher's career, and that the force of nature we've long called King Felix might never be the same again.
The numbers paint an ugly picture. By both statistical and scouting-based metrics, Hernandez has stumbled badly since leading the league with a 2.14 ERA and finishing second in AL Cy Young voting just two years ago.
Felix Hernandez, 2014-16:
As you might expect, Hernandez's declining component stats have fueled a sharp drop in results too. His league-leading 2.14 ERA from two years ago has spiked to 3.79 this season. By fielding-independent pitching, a metric that seeks to strip out factors such as defense and luck and focus on core skills (while running along a similar scale to ERA), Hernandez has gone from the third-best mark in the AL in 2014 (2.56) to 10th-worst in the league this year (4.72).
Perhaps it's not fair to negatively evaluate Hernandez during a season in which he's been whacked by injuries, and that his weak numbers (4.58 ERA, 34 walks and 12 homers in 74 innings) since his return from the DL reflect a pitcher who hasn't been pitching at 100 percent for a while now. Unfair, that is, until you consider the workload he's had to carry in his 12-year major league career.
Hernandez broke into the majors as a 19-year-old phenom back in 2005. Starting in 2008, he fired eight straight seasons of 200 or more innings pitched. Three other pitchers -- Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, and Justin Verlander -- just missed that mark, and are still going strong this season.
It's the one and only other pitcher who matched Hernandez's streak that gives you nightmares. That pitcher? James Shields, arguably the worst pitcher in the majors this season.
Pitchers can and do rebound from bad seasons, even later in their career. Once Verlander shook off a core injury that affected him for a year and a half, he rediscovered his lost velocity and began blowing high fastballs by hitters again, to the point that he might appear on a few Cy Young ballots this year. Still, with 2,400 major league innings under his belt, multiple indicators trending the wrong way, the odds being so stacked against pitcher health for the league as a whole, and the brutal way things can go south for even some of the game's pitching legends, you can't help but worry about Felix.
Dipoto's refusal to sacrifice premium prospects in a desperate rush to push the Mariners back to the postseason reflects a recognition of past franchise mistakes, and an understanding of the core tenets of scouting and player development that with rare exceptions haven't shown up in Seattle for a while. All seven of the organization's minor-league clubs made the playoffs this year, an encouraging little improvement for a system that's slowly starting to hoist itself from a murky pit.
Then again, this is also the oldest group of position players the M's have fielded in 12 years, and the second-oldest group of pitchers they've trotted out in 11, with most of the team's best players (Cruz, Robinson Cano, Hisashi Iwakuma) well over 30. We probably won't see a full-scale rebuild this winter, which means that Seattle's best hope is for young guns like Walker and Paxton to finally break through, coupled with the equivalent of a Trumbo-for-Steve Clevenger deal that actually works in the Mariners' favor this time.
If that approach fails too, the result could be even uglier. Instead of merely lamenting the waste of King Felix's prime, we'll start to wonder if the Mariners can get to the promised land before Cano, Cruz, and even Kyle Seager fade away too.
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