Seattle Mariners: In regards to Félix Hernández and what is “owed” to him

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 20: Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners looks on during the national anthem prior to taking on the Houston Astros at Safeco Field on August 20, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 20: Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners looks on during the national anthem prior to taking on the Houston Astros at Safeco Field on August 20, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

For the first time since 2008, Félix Hernández will not be the Mariners’ Opening Day starter. After several abysmal starts this Spring and a lack of willingness to adapt, Félix made this the easiest decision of Scott Servais’ tenure in Seattle.

You may have missed it, but our own Colby Patnode took to our Twitter account to share his thoughts about Félix Hernández following his three-inning, seven-run performance against the Indians yesterday. In short, Colby believes that Félix’s struggles should warrant his exclusion from the Mariners’ Opening Day roster.

Needless to say, these comments did not go over very well with some in the community, even prompting a response from former Mariner and teammate of Félix’s, Eric O’Flaherty:

While O’Flaherty’s sentiment is fair, it’s one that feels more appropriate in regards to past seasons, but we’ll get into that later.

Of course, what makes the 2019 season in particular so crucial to the relationship between Félix and the Mariners’ organization, is that it’s the final year on the seven-year, $175 million extension Félix signed back in 2013.

Signing that extension was a career-defining decision for Félix. It made him one of the highest-paid starting pitchers in the MLB, but more importantly cemented the remainder of his prime years in the Pacific Northwest.

For better or worse, it showed the loyalty, passion, and dedication Félix had for the Mariners’ organization and the city of Seattle. He was primed for free agency following the 2014 season, a year in which he put up his fifth-best fWAR mark of his career at 5.7.

There would have been a huge market for Félix, and he would have had his pick amongst several playoff contenders. Instead, he chose to stay in Seattle in hopes of ending the team’s historic postseason drought.

Félix’s commitment to the Mariners sprouted an undying appreciation from the fanbase, and rightfully so. Mariners fans have seen several of the team’s stars jettison Seattle for numerous reasons; whether it be market, contention, or monetary purposes.

This was unfamiliar territory for fans of the team. That day, Félix officially became a Seattle sports legend.

The narrative that has followed Félix for years is that the Mariners wasted his prime by building mediocre team after mediocre team around him. Since Félix became the Mariners’ incumbent ace in 2008, the team notched four seasons of 85 wins or more, but failed to make the postseason each and every time.

A bit of that can be attributed to poor luck and timing, though failures of other seasons do fall on the shoulders of the Jack Zduriencik regime and their inability to consistently construct a competitive roster.

There is a guilt that some fans carry when it comes to Félix because of this. For enduring years of mediocrity, some believe that the Mariners should show the same kind of loyalty that Félix showed them as his career spirals downward.

For enduring years of mediocrity, some believe that the Mariners should show the same kind of loyalty that Félix showed them as his career spirals downward.

But a lot of things have changed in the organization since Félix signed his extension; a new regime has stepped in and changed the entire makeup of the franchise from top to bottom, and ownership has changed hands. Many of those involved in the negotiation process and decision-making of the extension are long gone.

The newest powers that be in the Mariners organization are not to blame for the team’s lack of success during Félix’s prime. Therefore, they should not be handcuffed by what Félix and his supporters believe he’s owed.

Since Jerry Dipoto took over as the Mariners’ GM at the end of the 2015 season, Félix has been worth 1.7 fWAR—fifth worst amongst qualified starting pitchers. Some of his struggles can be attributed to a series of injuries that have hampered him over the past three seasons, though eight straight years of throwing 200+ innings will do that to a pitcher.

Over that time, Félix’s velocity has significantly dipped and he no longer features five plus pitches that he can throw at any time in any order he pleases.

We’ve seen veteran pitchers reinvent themselves to stay successful once their body begins to break down. For the last two years, fans and analysts alike have tried to use Justin Verlander as an example of what a turnaround could look like for Félix. But Verlander’s game differs from Félix, and what worked for the former won’t work for the latter.

The storyline going into the last three camps has been that Félix is either “in the best shape of his life” (barf) or that he has made a few mechanical adjustments.

However, these “adjustments” have ultimately been more along the lines of a tweak to his delivery, or in this year’s case, working strictly out of the stretch instead of, say, trying to rely more on his breaking stuff to consistently create weak contact.

We’ve seen glimpses here and there of the success Félix can have when he tries to be more deceptive. But as we’ve witnessed over the course of last season and into Spring Training this year, Félix always reverts back to trying to overpower hitters when it’s just not possible anymore.

For three years now, Félix and those around him have claimed that he’s tried to make changes, but he hasn’t displayed any sort of real adaptability in action. He’s still trying to do what worked for him in his prime; dominating hitters from the point of attack and racking up strikeouts. That’s led to the home run issues, amongst other things.

Due respect has been paid to Félix in full by Dipoto and Scott Servais. Perhaps if the contract wasn’t as much of an issue, Félix would have had a shorter leash. But that hasn’t stopped the Yankees from basically treating Jacoby Ellsbury as if he doesn’t exist. They’ve given Félix every opportunity to turn things around, and he’s done nothing to reward them for their patience.

Félix being bad isn’t new. He’s been this way for a while. He’s been given ample opportunity to change, but hasn’t. If the Mariners wind up moving on from him, especially early on, fans will think that it’s a sign of disrespect. But Félix is the 11th highest paid player in baseball, yet is statistically one of the worst at a crowded position. There is a high standard automatically set for him, and he’s ultimately fallen well shy of the mark.

And that’s no one’s fault but Félix’s. Dipoto and co. are not to blame for “not building a more competitive team.” In fact, Félix’s contract has been one of Dipoto’s greatest hinderances in being more aggressive in the free agent market during his tenure, amongst other horrible commitments the Zduriencik regime made.

Whatever happens, the Mariners are paying Félix $27 million this season. It’s a sunk cost, whether he plays for them or not. They don’t have to keep him because of the money, nor because of his status within the organization. At some point, his presence on the roster will be detrimental both for culture and in blocking the team’s younger pitchers from getting valuable innings under their belt.

I think they will part ways at some point. Perhaps in May once Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson‘s service time has been clocked. When it does, it will not be done out of disrespect. In actuality, it might be the most respectful (perhaps merciful) thing they can do for Félix, instead of letting him continue to tarnish his Mariners career performing the way he has.

As vocal as we’ve been about the Ichiro situation, the Mariners have at least handled that fairly proper. Ichiro was awful in his short, 15-game stint with the Mariners last season, eventually accepting a role in the team’s front office. For handling that with such dignity and class, the Mariners are rewarding him by letting him tie a bow on his Hall of Fame career in his home country next week.

These are two separate situations under much different circumstances, but the Mariners ending things with Félix doesn’t have to be bad. They also don’t have to let it drag on through the entire season.

Next. Five somewhat bold predictions for the Mariners season. dark

It doesn’t matter if this is a “step-back year” for the Mariners or not; if Félix is once again statistically one of the worst pitchers in baseball, he shouldn’t play. Simple as that.