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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 18, 2011 at 11:55 AM

Felix trade talk and Mariner attendance

felixfrustration.jpg

(Felix Hernandez during Saturdays’ start in Kansas City. Photo by McClatchy Newspapers).

It didn’t take a genius to predict that Felix Hernandez trade speculation would fly all season. Particularly if the Mariners got off to a bad start, and they have.

So now, right on cue, we have Buster Olney going on the Mike and Mike radio show on ESPN today and talking about how Felix looks “distracted” this season and noting that clubs — not just the Yankees — are coming hard after Hernandez and will continue to do so. Buster also addressed this matter in his ESPN insider column yesterday. You have to be a subscriber, but here’s part of what Olney wrote:

But Hernandez is not pitching well so far this year, and some rival scouts are detecting early frustration in the right-hander — they wonder if the losing and the constant stress of pitching with no margin for error, and mostly pitching for nothing but pride, is taking its toll on him. Hernandez has a 4.33 ERA after four starts and opponents are hitting .282 against him. “He looks distracted to me,” said one scout. “Something is not right.”

What rival scouts and executives see in Hernandez’s intensity and effort really doesn’t matter; what matters is what Seattle is seeing from him, daily. In a conversation in early February, Hernandez — one of two Mariners who lives in Seattle in the offseason — said flatly that he’s committed to the organization and wants to do everything he can to help the team win.

If the Mariners’ decision-makers determine for themselves that Hernandez is getting fed up and bored with the losing, then the best time to trade him will be this summer. His value is extraordinary, and similarly, their trade leverage will never be higher, because of what he would immediately mean to any interested team, whether it be the Yankees or the Braves (who could put together a heck of an offer) or the Red Sox.

First of all, I don’t buy the premise that Hernandez is distracted, and I certainly don’t think anything has changed as far as his commitment to the Mariner organization: It remains strong. Furthermore, I don’t think his pitching through four starts merits any major concern. He’s 1-2 with a 4.33 ERA (27 ip, 29 hits, seven walks, 23 strikeouts). Last year at the outset of May, Hernandez had a four-game stretch in which he was 0-2 with a 6.97 ERA (20 2/3 innings, 29 hits, 12 walks, 21 strikeouts). In fact, for the entire month of May last year, Hernandez was 0-3, 4.79 in six starts. It happens, even to the great ones. Hernandez’s 2010 season turned out all right, if I recall.

But that’s a separate issue from the Hernandez trade question, which I think is at least partially linked to this story I did on Sunday on the Mariners’ dwindling attendance. The Mariners are budgeting for under 2 million fans this year for the first time in Safeco Field history. Fans are as disillusioned about the direction of this franchise as ever, even though some encouraging things are happening in the realm of player development. Felix Hernandez is not just the best, but easily the most popular player on the team right now, the true face of the franchise, with all due respect to Ichiro.

We could debate all day and into next week the baseball pluses and minuses of trading Hernandez for a package of prospects and young players, and whether or not it would be the right move to hasten the Mariners’ rebuilding process. It’s a valid, relevant discussion in which each side could make some very convincing arguments.

But the Mariners also have to factor in the outrage factor. If they trade Hernandez for a prospect package, even if they’re all blue-chippers, it will not go over well with a large segment of the fan base who will see nothing but the fact the Mariners traded their best player. I suspect trading Hernandez would be a hugely unpopular move, at least initially, no matter the return.

The Mariners have a business to run, and they have to think about such things, and weigh them against the benefits of any particular offer — particularly at a time when fans are already turned off by the way things are going. That said, I think it’s perfectly valid to come to the conclusion that Hernandez is simply too valuable a property to trade, and to say, as Jack Zduriencik has done repeatedly when asked about trading Hernandez, that they see him as part of their turnaround. That’s a defensible conclusion with or without attendance issues.

But what fans really want most is a winner. They would forgive the Mariners for trading Hernandez if the package of players helped lead to a revival. The problem with prospects, however, is that they don’t always pan out. If you miss with a trade like this, and Hernandez goes on to reach the heights of success we all believe he’s headed towards, while the guys you got in return flame out, it would obviously be absolutely devastating to the organization.

This is all part of why the idea of potentially trading Felix Hernandez is such a fascinating, complex, controversial — and fun — topic, and will continue to be a hot-button item as the spring and summer progress.

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