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June 22, 2012 at 11:20 AM

Timing is everything in sports and Mariners nearing crunch time on deciding how Felix Hernandez fits in their plan

About a year and a half ago, we discussed the possibility of the Mariners dealing Felix Hernandez and how elements of it made a lot of sense. How they’d be nuts not to at least check out what another team like the New York Yankees might offer.
Back then, we noted that the Mariners were unlikely to trade Hernandez — then coming off a 2010 Cy Young Award season — simply because it would be a suicidal move with the local fanbase.
Once the 2011 season began, we revisited the topic because numerous rumors pertaining to a Hernandez deal had once again cropped up. And yet again, we reiterated that it was not going to happen, largely because of what we’d discussed above. But if you read through that post, you’ll see the caveat that within a year — meaning right now — all bets would be off.
And so, with the aim of remaining consistent, I will attempt to address yesterday’s piece by Ken Rosenthal of FOX in which he again brings up the correct analysis that dealing Hernandez makes plenty of sense for the Mariners.
Indeed it does.
This isn’t a new topic for anyone. We’ve written before about how the Mariners at least entertained the idea of a Hernandez trade as far back as the summer of 2009. Rosenthal actually makes reference to those talks in his piece from yesterday.
This isn’t just me agreeing with Rosenthal. This happens to be the opinion of many front office personnel from other teams, coaches, scouts, ex-players and anyone else I talk to in and around baseball who take a realistic look at where the M’s are headed. Yes, the Mariners have found some nice offensive pieces and can look halfway respectable on offense some nights. But they are still far from anything that will win a title the next couple of years.
And now, the question becomes: will Hernandez get you to that title more quickly? Or will a group of several MLB-ready young players do that for you first?
The answer is not cut-and-dried. This is where GM Jack Zdurienick earns the big bucks. As we’ve said all along, the more this rebuilding plan plods along, the closer we get to the date when Zduriencik has to be drop-dead honest with himself about when it has a realistic hope of paying off.
Not some “Maybe we can play .500-ball and win the second wild-card” kind of hope.
No, I’m talking about a realistic hope of waking up and saying: “We, the Seattle Mariners, have the capability right now of beating out the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels over a full 162-game schedule.”
And until that day arrives, the Mariners are still rebuilding. Right now, on June 22, 2012, the Rangers and Angels are pulling away in the AL West as everybody expected them to. The Mariners might have played some good head-to-head games with those squads, but they are double-digits out of the division race already and we’re not even at the halfway mark.
If you look back to my post from last April on Hernandez, I state at one point:
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.

Photo Credit: AP

Going over those words written by me 14 months ago, with all the hindsight we now have before us, does anyone out there realistically think the Mariners will win this division in 2013? I will state right now that I do not believe they are capable. As I stated a year ago, the chance of the Mariners making a quantum leap from also-ran to division contender in the 2011-to-2012 was remote.
And I continue to believe that about the 2012 team in regards to 2013.
So, if you don’t think the team can win in 2013, is it wise to head into Hernandez’s final contract year in 2014 with everything to lose? I don’t think it is.
And if you therefore know that July 2013 is the realistic deadline date to trade Hernandez, why not look into exploring a deal much earlier? A deal that would see him pitch for a contender in an additional playoff hunt? A deal that could ease the budget substantially for next year and free up valuable funds to pursue more hitters via free agency? As well as a deal that could score your team a better player-return in the actual trade itself?
I’ll come right out and say it. I’ve always questioned the wisdom of extending Hernandez for five years back in January 2010 when this team did not plan on upping payroll to the levels it needed to in order to contend. We will now, after 2012, have seen three of the five years of that extension wasted on teams that lost 101, 95 and now, who knows, 90-plus?
The reason you have to be honest with yourself if you are the Mariners, in regards to Hernandez, is because you will want to determine whether all five of Hernandez’s increasingly expensive contract years will be devoted to losing or barely-.500 teams. And right now, that looks to be the case.
Things can change, sure. But it would likely take a major cash infusion by ownership to bring in some bigger impact, elite bats. And based off this team’s recent track record, I don’t see that happening until a new TV deal is reached. That likely won’t happen in time to impact 2013.
The younger pitchers this team has moving up through the Class AA and AAA ranks are unlikely to all arrive in the majors before 2013 and it’s doubtful any of them will be championship contributors for a couple of years. So, yet again, it looks more and more like 2015 will be the earliest this team can realistically aspire to win a division title.
And Hernandez’s deal will have expired by then.
At the very first linked blog post, way up top of this one, you’ll see that I wrote back in 2010 that the Mariners would not deal Hernandez for prospects at that particular time because they likely wanted to try to win something before 2015.
But now, some 2 1/2 years later and with ample hindsight and further knowledge, it looks ever doubtful the Mariners can pull that off. That they will have to wait until 2015.
Sure, they could always pull out a second wild-card. But do you really want to base a team’s future plans on contending for a one-off “playoff” deal like that? I dunno. I view that new wild-card slotting as sort of a bonus. Some surprise that can pop out of nowhere and tide you over as you try to build a real playoff team. Not as an end goal.
For me, now more than ever because of the weakening of the first wild-card slot under the new format, the end goal has to be a division title (and of course, a World Series, but you have to get there first).
So, for me, and Rosenthal, and others, it’s a simple equation. Will the Mariners have a better shot at that title by keeping Hernandez now or by dealing him for pieces that can develop at the MLB level in the interim?
And remember, if 2015 is the realistic date, you’ll have to get Hernandez’s signature on a long-term extension prior to then and then hope he doesn’t suffer any serious arm injury he thus far has managed to avoid.
These are all serious considerations. Up to now, the Mariners have had time on their side to figure it out. But that time is running out. And the timing of all the young arms needing to mesh with Hernandez isn’t quite there yet if the goal is to contend by 2013 or 2014.
These are not made up factors. They are real considerations. Dismissing them as East Coast Bias, or the rantings of somebody who hates the Pacific Northwest ignores the larger reality of what is going on. The Mariners have a key decision looming on Felix Hernandez and where he truly fits in this rebuilding plan. And it’s a decision they are going to have to make very soon if they want to avoid hurting themselves in the long run.



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