I hope I’m wrong. It won’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last time. Wrong, I can deal with.
But I’ve got a premonition the long and happy marriage between the Seattle Mariners and Felix Hernandez is careening toward that place where compromise is undone by irreconcilable differences.
Splitsville, as the tabloid gossip columnists like to call it.
When Hernandez made his big-league debut in 2005, while still a teenager, he achieved a synergy with Mariners fans that amounted to love at first sight. Hernandez soon developed a nickname – King Felix – as he established himself among the most popular athletes in Seattle pro sports history.
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Six All-Star Game selections, one Cy Young Award and a second-place photo-finish for another – five Top 10 mentions between 2009 and 2013 – and never a trace of frustration about his team’s annual elimination from the playoffs. Posed a chance to explore free agency, he signed a 2013 contract extension recalled for the tears of joy Hernandez showed when the Mariners announced the deal at Safeco Field.
Then came last year, when injuries twice put him on the disabled list. Even at full health (assuming there is such a thing for a once-durable starter who broke into the minors 15 years ago), King Felix wasn’t particularly effective: A 6-5 record with a 4.36 ERA, 86 2/3 innings pitched, a career-low Wins Above Replacement score of 0.8.
When Hernandez showed up at spring camp last week, the expectation was he’d talk about his determination to 2017 behind him. A natural power pitcher whose fastball no longer sings in the key of G-Whiz, Hernandez shrugged off any notion that he’s past his prime and, thus, might want to consider reinventing himself.
“I don’t think I need to make any adjustments,” he told reporters Thursday. “I’m just going to go with my strengths.”
He added: “It’s all about pitching. If we can pitch, we’re going to win some games. I don’t have to prove anything. I do my thing. I don’t have to prove anything else.”
About this, Hernandez is correct. Until his contract expires after the 2019 season, he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. If he’s convinced his arm still has the potential to intimidate, he has every right to cling to that unrealistic belief.
But a math lesson might be in order. He’s thrown over 2,800 innings at the pro level. Assuming each of those innings has required him to deliver, say, 15 pitches, it translates into 42,000 pitches, and that doesn’t include bullpen sessions between starts and pregame warmups.
Having doubled down on his insistence adjustments are out of the question, Hernandez has put Mariners management in an awkward situation. It wants him to take a different approach to the mound in 2018. It needs him to take a different approach to the mound in 2018.
And yet, on the first day of spring-training workouts, Hernandez defiantly pronounced his 2018 mission state as “going with my strengths.”
Those strengths are, uh, what? He’s not an ace with the potential to produce a double-digit strikeout total whenever he starts. He’s a middle-of-the-rotation guy attempting to rebound from a sub-par season.
Informing an ex-ace that he’s a middle-of-the-rotation guy will be up to Mariners manager Scott Servais. I can’t imagine any version of that conversation as pleasant, but the conversation is necessary and it should go like this.
Servais: “Felix, I want to remind you of what you mean to our team, our fans and our city, and that you’re a huge piece in our plans going forward.”
Hernandez: “Thanks, Skip.”
Servais: “But seeing as how you want to keep relying on your strengths, we need to emphasize our strengths. Our strength in the rotation is James Paxton, which is why he’ll be starting the opener against Cleveland.”
Starting a team’s first game of the season is an honor that’s 100 percent ceremonial and 0 percent strategic. Hernandez has started 10 of 11 Seattle openers since 2007. The exception was in 2008, when Erik Bedard got the call because, for one, he was a newly acquired veteran with impressive credentials and, for two, he was Erik Bedard, a high-maintenance head case management was challenged to tolerate.
Appointing Bedard as 2008 opening day starter was the Mariners way of reassuring the lefty of his great talent, and Hernandez took the news in stride. He ended up starting 31 other games and throwing 200 innings, compared to Bedard’s 15 starts and 81 innings.
Bedard didn’t deserve the opening day honor, but Paxton certainly does. Last July, the Big Maple wasn’t merely his team’s best pitcher, he was the league’s best pitcher, on his way to a Cy Young Award season derailed by injuries.
There’s a school of thought that holds since opening day is a ceremonial assignment, give the nod to King Felix in recognition of his many achievements in Seattle.
I’m from the school of thought that holds since opening day is a ceremonial assignment, give the nod to the pitcher who excelled a year ago.
Hernandez never has struck me as somebody who responds to disappointment by sulking. The King is a 160-game winner who might be a 200-game winner had he enjoyed some run support during those years when the Mariners offense was historically weak.
But that’s all under the bridge, and the task is to go forward. Prominent in that task is identifying new roles to familiar faces.
James Paxton is the Mariners ace, and deserves to start the opener. Felix Hernandez, meanwhile, is hanging on, unwilling to make adjustments, stubborn in his conviction he’s got nothing to prove.
This is not going to end well.