Long Live the King: Mariners Should Extend Felix Hernandez

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 3: Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners walks through the dugout smiling during the eighth inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field on June 3, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners won 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 3: Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners walks through the dugout smiling during the eighth inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field on June 3, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners won 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images) /

The crowd roared. The walls of Safeco Field shook. It had never been done in a Mariners uniform before. And, as this piece is being written, it hasn’t been done in baseball since. Not a single person was in their seat. Felix Hernandez hurled a changeup at the knees for a called third strike on the Rays Sean Rodriguez.

It finally happened. It took 34 years for the first Seattle Mariners Perfect Game and number 34 himself pointed to the sky.

The date was August 15th, 2012. I remember the day like it was yesterday. My parents had bought me and a few friends tickets to the game for my birthday. Of course, we had no idea of the events that were about to transpire. I didn’t know that it would be one of the most amazing days of my life when I woke up that morning.

I’ve sung Sweet Caroline at Fenway Park. I’ve watched the New York Yankees win a home game. And I’ve stood in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But nothing has ever compared to the joy that I felt watching Felix etch his name into the history books.

Fast forward to today. Felix is set to take on the Colorado Rockies at 7:10. His less than sparkling 5.14 ERA stands out like a sore thumb among the Mariners rotation. Gone are the days of 89 MPH changeups and double-digit strikeouts. Felix Hernandez is not the same pitcher that he once was and his contract is set to expire after the 2019 season.

As the Mariners finally find themselves in the middle of a playoff run, the elephant in the room must be addressed; Do the Seattle Mariners extend Felix Hernandez, or do they allow him to walk and sign with another team?

Let’s go back to Felix’s last extension. It was early 2013. Felix was fresh off 232 IP in 2012 while racking up 223 strikeouts. He was set to become a Free Agent at the end of the 2014 season and would then be free to sign with any team. But instead, Felix decided to stay in Seattle.

To that point in his career, the Seattle Mariners had finished with a record above .500 only twice. Felix had been the only bright spot on so many of those Mariners teams from 2005 to moment that he signed his name to that new contract.

He was the face of the franchise. He was the King. And he put his faith into a team that had given him nothing in return. He stayed because he wanted to make it to the playoffs with the Mariners. He could have easily left and could have a World Series ring on his finger by now. Felix didn’t. He stayed right here and made the Seattle Mariners bearable to watch.

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 20: Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners pitches in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 20: Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners pitches in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

He’s played on teams that had Jesus Montero catching and Chone Figgins attempting and failing to hit a ball past the pitcher’s mound. Felix Hernandez didn’t care about that. He wanted to win here. When he came into that room, crying, for his press conference, it was set in stone. Felix Hernandez needed to be and wanted to be a Mariner for life.

Felix became the highest paid pitcher in baseball at the time. Since then, Felix’s ERA has jumped every year while his strikeout rate has fallen off. 2015 was the first time in 7 years that Felix did not strikeout 200 hitters.

Still, he pitched to a 3.53 ERA that year while eating over 200 innings. In 2016, Felix’s ERA bumped up a bit more, this time to a 3.82 in 25 starts. And then in 2017, Felix made only 16 starts and pitched to a 4.82 ERA  in an injury-plagued season.

Based on those numbers, prior to last year, Felix has been a pretty successful pitcher since his extension. Maybe he hasn’t been an ace but compared to other pitchers, Felix was fine. But now, injuries are catching up to Felix and catching up fast. That’s what happens when you throw as many innings as he did in such a short span. Too many times, Felix would go out and pitch seven or eight innings when the Mariners were out of contention.

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The Jack Zduriencik era front office would have Felix stay in the game because it is all they had. He was the only bright spot on the team. Felix Hernandez throwing the baseball every five days is the only thing that kept people watching. Pitching like that takes its toll.

Enough about the past. We need to talk about the now with the Mariners and Felix. The team itself is in a good spot. GM Jerry Dipoto is fresh off a brand new contract extension, keeping him with the Mariners for the foreseeable future. Wade LeBlanc just signed an extension himself. The entire rotation is signed through at least 2020 and the team itself is TWENTY FOUR games over .500 and hot on the tail of the Houston Astros for the division lead.

Much will be decided in the next few months for the Mariners, but they are finally good. 13 years after Felix Hernandez made his major league debut, the Mariners are finally playing the way that he deserves them too. Except now, he is struggling.

The tables have turned. All those years of Felix pitching on the top of his game while the Mariners were barely able to score a run any given night. Now, Felix struggles to keep the runs off the board. It’s almost poetic. There have been encouraging signs though. Felix has already thrown more innings than he did in 2017. He has pitched 34 innings in his last 6 starts and allowed 14 runs. He pitched to a 3.71 ERA in June which is a step in the right direction.

If you take away the few clunkers that Felix has had that are outliers, he is much better than the numbers show. He still gives the Mariners a chance to win each time he goes out. If only he could escape the first inning. Felix also owns a 3.81 ERA at home in 2018 and a 6.65 on the road.

I ran a Twitter poll that currently has 24 votes asking if Felix should be extended. 63% of the people who voted to say that Felix should not be extended. It’s interesting to see the way people vote and that’s why I think it’s such a good conversation to have. Mariners fans have been through a lot since their last postseason run in 2001. There are certain players that stand out above the rest during that time and Felix may be the most prominent. It’s a conversation that I love to have because there are so many layers to it.

Felix, even when he is not leading the way on the field, is a catalyst in the clubhouse. He is a leader that people look up to. He is sort of like a glue that holds everyone together. And he is the longest-tenured Mariners still on the team and seeing him in another uniform would kill me.

I don’t think Jerry Dipoto would let Felix walk. I also know that Jerry is smart enough to not sign Felix to a deal if he thinks that it will hurt the club. Think about what he did with Iwakuma. Think about what he did with Ichiro. Felix fits in that mold. He’s is not going to get paid $20+ million a year but I do think the two sides can come to a reasonable extension that doesn’t hinder the Mariners in the future as well as one that keeps Felix in the only place he knows.

He will not be extended to be an ace. James Paxton has that role now. But he can still be an effective number 5 starter.  Maybe even just a two year, incentive-laden deal that would keep Felix in an M’s uniform until he is 35. That way, the Mariners can gauge how Felix has transformed himself in that time period. Dipoto has been very creative in his time with Seattle and he could make a similar deal with Felix that they did with Wade LeBlanc.

Plenty of incentives while also having a plethora of options and buyouts should things go south. It is still much too early to say that Felix Hernandez is washed up when he is just a season and a half removed from a sub-4 ERA. Felix may still be able to be effective and his numbers over the last month have shown just that.

It’s funny how quickly people forget what Felix has done for the city of Seattle. He was the best pitcher in baseball when he decided to sign a contract extension with a team that couldn’t get themselves out of the basement of the AL West. He dedicated his life to getting that team to the playoffs but was never given the right group to do it with under the god-awful Jack Z. regime.

Now the circumstances are flipped and everybody wants to give up on Felix when the Mariners are so close to making it to the playoffs. They don’t want to show the same level of commitment to one guy as he did to an entire city. We didn’t deserve Felix back then. He was on a Hall of Fame track and may have lost it all because he played for the Seattle Mariners. His family is a part of the city now. Little Jeremy Hernandez has thrown out the first pitch on multiple occasions. He is more than just a pitcher at this point.

He’s become a member of our family for the better part of 13 years and he needs the same level of support that he showed back when he signed his first extension.

The Mariners haven’t been this close to securing a playoff spot since Felix Hernandez threw his first pitch in the big leagues. 2018 may be the year that the M’s finally break through and get Felix to his first ever postseason game. Felix deserves it. The city of Seattle deserves it.

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No matter what happens in the coming years, 2018 is going to be one to remember and I’m glad Felix is still here to experience it with us. Now and forever, long live King Felix.