They called him The King.
In deference to the glory of his reign, they still do.
Now, though, Felix Hernandez is only a figurehead in Seattle – and an increasingly problematic one, at that – who’s been stripped of his powers and lays a tenuous claim to his throne.
On Friday, the Mariners announced Hernandez won’t start their regular-season opener in Tokyo next week. The last pitcher not named Felix Hernandez to start for Seattle on Opening Day was Erik Bedard, way back in 2008.
Naturally, the 32-year-old Hernandez was upset about it – but he wasn’t surprised.
“I knew it was going to happen,” the right-hander toldon Sunday.
Hernandez, after all, authored his worst season in 2018, stumbling to career highs in ERA (5.55), ERA+ (73), FIP (5.18), and WHIP (1.40) over 155 2/3 innings. In August, he briefly lost his rotation spot, precipitating the first – and ignominious – relief appearance of his 14-year career.
His performance this spring, for what little it’s worth, has been no less dispiriting. Through three Cactus League outings, Hernandez owns a 15.95 ERA with a 2.18 WHIP, having allowed a whopping 13 hits while issuing three walks in 7 1/3 innings. Not that a more impressive spring could’ve compelled manager Scott Servais to reward him with the Opening Day assignment.
“No,” Hernandez replied, shaking his head contemptuously when posed Sunday with that hypothetical. “No.”
While he may begrudge the decision, Hernandez gets it. He’s an aging, increasingly ineffective starter on a team veering into the first year of a soft rebuild – a “re-imagining,” as general manager Jerry Dipoto branded it earlier this offseason – and the Mariners want to hand that symbolic Opening Day gig to someone younger and better, who figures to be around when the team is competitive. Hernandez, who’ll make $27 million this season in the final year of his contract, won’t be.
One one hand, it’s not impossible to reconcile the divergent paths of Hernandez and the M’s. With no expectations to meet in 2019, the team could guarantee its erstwhile ace the fifth rotation spot all season long, irrespective of performance, giving him one last summer with his longtime fans as a token of gratitude.
However, the impending divorce makes it harder to discount the downside of hanging onto a potentially inept and discontented Hernandez, and to ignore the uncomfortable possibility that the Mariners may simply be better off without him right now.
At the height of his powers, Hernandez, a prodigy who signed with the Mariners at 16 and was still a teenager when he made his big-league debut, was unquestionably among the game’s top starters – a snarlingly competitive, indefatigable workhorse whose brilliance was obscured by the overwhelmingly lousy teams he played on.
From his abbreviated (but spectacular) 2005 rookie season through 2014, no pitcher accruedthan Hernandez, who crafted a 3.07 ERA (3.15 FIP) over that span while averaging 206 innings per season. Even after adjusting for the notoriously pitcher-friendly effects of Safeco Field, his ERA during those years was still 30 percentage points better than the American League average.
In 2009, at 23, Hernandez earned his first All-Star nomination and finished second in AL Cy Young voting. The next year, he won the honor. He was an All-Star in each of the following five seasons, only once failing to receive down-ballot Cy Young votes.
In 2012, he tossed the first and only perfect game in Mariners history. Six months later, he signed the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher at the time, pledging the remainder of his prime to a franchise whose most recent postseason appearance predated his first major-league start by four years. The $175-million deal ensured Hernandez would stay in Seattle through 2019. It also looked like a potential liability relatively quickly.
In 2015, while he continued to log an obscene volume of innings, Hernandez’s home run rate skyrocketed, contributing to his worst ERA in eight years. The problem didn’t abate the following season, which was also marred by a calf injury that limited him to 153 1/3 innings, the least he’d pitched since his rookie campaign.
Since then, amid a continuous decline in velocity, Hernandez has vacillated between injured and ineffective. He owns a 5.13 ERA over 242 1/3 innings since the start of the 2017 campaign. In fact, the decline has been so swift and precipitous that he now seems like a, barring a late-career resurgence.
Put bluntly, Hernandez hasn’t been dominant since 2014, and he’s devolved over the last two years from serviceable to replacement level.
The money owed to him in 2019 is a sunk cost. Presumably of greater import to the Mariners right now is opportunity cost. And damage control.
At some point this year, Seattle will likely need a rotation spot for left-hander Justus Sheffield, its prized acquisition in the James Paxton trade, and none of Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Wade LeBlanc, or Mike Leake deserve to be displaced more than Hernandez. (And all but LeBlanc remain under contract through at least 2020.)
Hypothetically, would an ineffective Hernandez graciously yield to the 22-year-old Sheffield when that day comes? Would he accept a role in the bullpen? Would the Mariners even want him in the bullpen? Would his frustration over a potential demotion infuse toxicity into the clubhouse?
Alternatively, what if the Mariners – fearing possible blowback, or maybe for service-time manipulation purposes – just leave Hernandez in the rotation to rot, even with Sheffield continuing to dominate in Triple-A as he did in 2018? In the midst of a reset, would that send a message to the franchise that opportunities aren’t distributed based on merit?
Additionally, could the Mariners even release Hernandez if they wanted to? Would the fans abide a franchise icon being cut loose in the final year of his deal? Is the organization willing to be branded as one that does dirty its most celebrated heroes?
Barring an improbable bounce-back campaign from Hernandez, the Mariners and their deposed ace will have to provide answers to at least a few of those questions during the 2019 season. What’s clear already is that the once-beautiful marriage between Seattle and its monarch may well be headed for an awkward – and acrimonious – ending.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter.
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