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April 19, 2011 at 9:17 AM

Felix Hernandez won’t be traded this year, but a year from now?…all bets are off

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ADDITIONAL NOTE: Don’t forget, we’ll have Geoff Baker Live! tonight at 6 p.m. from FX McRory’s
Time to quash all of this Felix Hernandez trade talk. For this year, anyway. Much of it has been coming from national and East Coast-based media. And the logic behind it is sound. But it’s still not going to happen in 2011.
The time to start paying real close attention will be a year from now.
Here’s why.

The Mariners are going nowhere at the moment, mired with a 5-12 record that is fully deserved by a team looking as poor as advertised in most facets of the game. As a result, attendance that was already expected to suffer this season is not going to get any help from walkup crowds.
We wrote this past winter about how the M’s are entering a critical point in their history in regards to their relationship with the fanbase. And so far, we’re seeing that unfold with crowds hovering around the 12,000 and 13,000 mark.
In my universe (I wasn’t born in Seattle, as some of you know) the big attendance news to come out of Larry Stone’s weekend story wasn’t that the M’s might fail to reach 2 million fans this year. The news, for me, is that we even have to put a “might fail” qualifier on it. In many cities, 2 million fans is considered a great thing. In other places, teams as bad as the 2010 and 2011 M’s might be wondering whether they’d even draw 1 million fans.
So, for me, the fact the M’s could even come close to 2 million is a testament to the willingnesss of the fan base here to be loyal and trusting when it comes to their team. That is a good thing, by the way.
But that good thing hasn’t produced much to cheer about since the 2008 season began. Or since the 2003 season ended, depending on your scope of vision.
And those fans still shelling out big bucks to come to the ballpark might begin to wonder why they should bother if things don’t turn around quickly. Their loyalty, trust and faith as a fanbase is being pushed to the limit right now like never before.
And the team simply cannot risk anything that might sap any of those remaining feelings.
A Hernandez trade would do just that. This team could lose more than 100 games once again this season (it was always going to struggle not to lose 90) and the last thing the M’s need to do to compound that frustration is trade Hernandez.
Do that this season and you may never get those lost fans back.
Next season? That’s a different story.
We’ve already seen the early season emergence of Justin Smoak, who is looking to be a potential building block for this terrible offense. Michael Pineda is a possible Rookie of the Year candidate (let’s see him do the once-around thing first before we go too crazy about his start) who could potentially be a front-end type guy in this rotation. Right now, he looks like the second-best pitcher in the rotation (yes, Hernandez is still No. 1, even if his team can’t catch or score for him).
When Dustin Ackley comes up, we might see some additional signs.
Adam Moore is a write-off this season because of his knee injury. We’re getting an extended look at Michael Saunders so far and will know more by this time next year. By this time next year, we should know whether Franklin Gutierrez is back and over his stomach issues.
Also, by this time next year, a lot of the stop-gap veterans who are here right now may not be around.
It’s tough to get a feel for this team as a group right now, because the situations with this group are so different. There are guys in the clubhouse now who know they are unlikely to be around in a few months and you have to wonder how deep their emotional investment is in this club. That’s a natural human reaction. So, I’d be shocked if it wasn’t playing out.
But that should be taken care of, to a large degree, next year.
No, the M’s are not going to contend in 2012 either. The rest of this division is still way ahead of them and no one-year transformation is going to be that drastic.
But by early 2012, the M’s should have a much better idea than they do right now of when they are going to contend.
After all, the millions coming off the books by shedding some of those veteran players should, in theory, help the team go after a prized free agent or two. Might help them trade for a pricier player as well. Some of you would like to see Grady Sizemore or Prince Fielder added to the team.
And if that were to happen, it would clearly change some of the outlook we now have.
So, we’ll know more one year from today.
But if the team is still floundering, still stuck in the blocks, that’s when you start to seriously contemplate a Hernandez trade.
Because if the 2012 Mariners are out of the race in April, as the 2011 team is, then Jack Zduriencik and his management team will have to have a frank discussion with themselves about when contention is really going to happen.
And if 2013 isn’t the answer, then a Hernandez trade might have to take place.
Hernandez is only under contract through 2014. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
You can’t wait until midway through 2014 to deal him, because then you won’t be getting full value on the return. If you have any feeling that Hernandez will leave as a free agent after 2014, the time to trade him is July 2013.
And no matter what Hernandez says about loving Seattle right now — and I believe him — there’s no telling what he’ll be thinking if he has to go through another year-plus of this with no end in sight. Hernandez is like the fanbase: loyal and trusting and, unlike the fans, with millions in compensation to feel that way. But loyalty and trust has limits.
Any package for Hernandez would have to include more than just prospects. You’d need major league ready players and guys already in the majors added to the prospect package. A prospects boatload merely pushes off the rebuilding timeframe by several more years. This team doesn’t have forever.
And it doesn’t have forever with Hernandez either. Tick tock, tick tock. Doesn’t matter whether you like the “East Coast based” media talk or not. It’s out there because this is a real situation that could unfold. What wasn’t real was all the pie-in-the-sky talk about how the M’s “might” contend by 2012. That was never going to happen based on the current talent level of this team. Too many young guys need to get broken in, go through their sophomore jinx, etc.
And many fans are only now waking up to the idea that their optimism was a tad inflated. That’s OK. But it’s going to be a long haul and they’re none too pleased about it.
No sense further aggravating them by dealing Hernandez now when you don’t have to.
You wait a year and see where you’re at. You see whether the team is making strides to the point where it might actually win as many games as it loses. You see whether contention in 2013 is at all possible and if so, then you might hang on to Hernandez.
But if young guys are struggling next year and your off-season influx of talent wasn’t as great as some now think it could be, then you have to start getting real.
Because having Hernandez around for only one year just as this thing is starting to take off in Seattle won’t be in anyone’s best interest.
Would fans be just as infuriated 15 months from now if Hernandez does get traded? Possibly. But by that point, if the M’s are still a cellar-dwellar, they’ll probably feel the wrath of the paying public to a maximum degree in any event.
Now, there’s still hope for 2013. The team does not have to make a move just yet.
If that hope for 2013 is pretty much dashed for non-fans/paid realists in the front office a year from now, it will be time to explore other options.
So, forget any trade talk right now. But remember: tick tock, tick tock. This rebuilding plan is on-the-clock.



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