Felix Hernandez made his debut for the Seattle Marines when he was 19 years old. It’s easy to fall in love with the kids, of course, especially ones who throw fastballs from heaven and curveballs that opposing hitters would suggest were from hell.
He was so good, so young, so dynamic in those first few starts in 2005, a gift from the baseball gods for a bad team. I watched him blow away the Royals in his third career start, pitching eight innings with 11 strikeouts, still pumping 96-mph fastballs in his final inning. He was already King Felix, Mariners fans lining up "KKKKKKKKKKKing Felix" placards in the outfield. After that game, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said, "I am trying not to go over the deep end bragging about this guy. I would love to sit here and tell you all the flowery, beautiful things that I am feeling, but common sense tells me I should not go down that road."
I went down that road. At the time, I wrote, "I had to watch Monday night because maybe -- just maybe -- he really is the King who can save my baseball team."
Felix didn’t save the Mariners, no fault of his own, of course. He's been terrific, his best pitch now a lethal changeup, but since he made his first start on Aug. 4, 2005, the Mariners are 502-618, a .448 winning percentage. Twice they lost 101 games. Two other seasons they lost 90-plus. They’re on pace to lose 94 this season.
It’s time to say the once unthinkable words: It’s time to trade Felix Hernandez.
* * * *
In a nutshell:
1. The Mariners’ best chance of becoming relevant before Albert Pujols' contract expires lies in pitching prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton.
2. If you have three good starting pitchers, you can afford to trade Hernandez.
3. Under contract through 2014, Hernandez’s trade value is as high as ever right now.
4. The Mariners are not going to be competitive in the next two seasons.
5. He has thrown a lot of innings at a young age. He's a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt.
What the Mariners need, of course, are hitters. Now is the time to acquire them. The 2012 season is wide open, especially in the National League. The addition of a second wild-card team may make teams even more aggressive on the trade market as the July 31 deadline approaches. With aces Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke possibly available, the Mariners would offer the biggest prize of all. Those two are rentals, impending free agents; if you trade for Felix, you get him for the rest of this season and two more. Now that’s a difference-maker.
Look where the Mariners stand. They’re competing against the Rangers and Angels, two franchises deep in talent and financial resources. Trying to build an 85-win club and hope you catch a few breaks isn’t going to cut it. You have to aim bigger.
How many championship-level starters are in the Mariners' current lineup? At the start of the season, the Mariners were banking on Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero to develop into a playoff-caliber core. All have been bitter disappointments. Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders have been pleasant surprises, showing enough promise to develop into solid contributors.
To be fair, something weird is going on at Safeco Field, making it a little more difficult to evaluate these players. The Mariners are hitting just .196 at home (opponents are hitting just .221). Of the 12 players with the lowest home OPS in the American League (minimum 100 plate appearances), seven are Mariners. On the road, the Mariners rank sixth in the AL in OPS and 11th in on-base percentage. That road OBP indicates this is an offense still in need of major help.
* * * *
Reasons why the Mariners shouldn’t make a trade.
1. These trades never work out.
True, the Indians, Phillies and Mariners all traded Cliff Lee and basically got nothing of value yet in return. The Indians traded CC Sabathia and have only Michael Brantley to show for it. But none of those trades involved a player with two-plus seasons of control left. When the Royals traded Zack Greinke to the Brewers, he had just two seasons remaining; they did a little better, with Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi. And sometimes they do work out, as when the Rangers acquired Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz (plus Jarrod Saltalamacchia) for Mark Teixeira. With Felix having two-plus years under control, the Mariners can demand more in return than those trades.
2. The Mariners will lose their fan base.
They’ve already lost much of it. The Mariners led the AL in attendance in 2001 and 2002. Even in 2005 when they lost 93 games, they still ranked fourth in the league. This year, attendance will decline for the fifth straight season, and they rank 11th in the league, averaging 22,286 per game, barely half of what they averaged a decade ago.
And, no, I don’t want to hear that Felix packs them in. Players don’t draw fans; winning teams draw fans. This year, the Mariners have averaged 25,616 when Hernandez pitches, 21,307 when he doesn’t. But Felix’s starts include the home opener and Father’s Day; take out those games and the M’s average 23,348 when he pitches. Last year they averaged 24,392 for Felix, 22,181 for everyone else. The Felix attendance boost is minor.
3. Felix loves Seattle and says he wants to pitch there forever.
Seattle fans have an irrational obsession over whether their athletes like Seattle or not. This goes way back to the 1970s; it used to be a huge deal whether local athletes lived in Seattle in the offseason. Anyway, after being spurned by Ken Griffey Jr. (who did return), Alex Rodriguez and an entire NBA franchise, Mariners fans went overboard when Hernandez said this. OK, can you guarantee he’ll re-sign with the Mariners after 2014? You can't … not when the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and, yes, Rangers and Angels, will be ready to pay him a fortune.
Here’s another consideration. Factoring in Safeco Field’s pitcher-friendly reputation, it’s difficult for the Mariners to sign free-agent hitters. The Mariners have signed five significant free agents since moving to Safeco: John Olerud (a Seattle native), Bret Boone (coming off a terrible season), Ichiro Suzuki (via Japan), Richie Sexson (a Washington state native), Adrian Beltre (coming off his monster season with the Dodgers to a deal many thought was an overpaid) and Chone Figgins (no comment). And when Beltre signed, Safeco didn’t have nearly the Death Valley reputation it has now.
Pitchers are more likely to head to Safeco. Plus, it’s also easier to fill out the back end of a pitching staff than a lineup, especially in a pitcher’s park. Considering the Mariners' farm system is thin in hitting prospects, trading Felix is the best way to acquire an impact bat.
So who do the Mariners call? There is one team that clearly matches up: the St. Louis Cardinals. They have depth and prospects; they are in win-now mode, they need Hernandez and they can afford to take on the $39.5 million owed to him in 2013 and 2014 with some high-priced players coming off the books. The Mariners ask for:
Outfielder Oscar Taveras, Keith Law’s No. 8 midseason prospect, is a 20-year-old hitting .332/.381/.593 in Double-A with just 46 strikeouts in 334 at-bats. As Keith wrote, "His bat still profiles as star caliber in right."
The Cardinals don’t have room for Matt Adams with Lance Berkman and Allen Craig. Adams is a 23-year-old lefty masher hitting .362/.390/.684 with 14 home runs in 174 at-bats at Triple-A Memphis (although just .244/.286/.384 in 27 games with the Cards). Alternatively, include Craig -- hitting .296/.364/.577 with the Cardinals -- instead of Adams.
Shelby Miller was one of the top pitching prospects entering the season but has struggled in Triple-A. Keith still ranked him No. 17 overall on his update. Take a chance on that arm.
Tyrell Jenkins is another power righty with big upside, a guy who just missed Keith’s top 50 list. OK, maybe that's getting a little greedy.
This trade doesn't completely gut the Cardinals' farm system, which would still have Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong, but it’s a no-brainer for them. Yes, as with any prospect deal, the risk would belong to Seattle.
In 2014, the Mariners perhaps look like this:
2B Dustin Ackley
SS Nick Franklin (No. 40 on Keith’s list)
RF Oscar Taveras
1B Matt Adams
DH Jesus Montero
C Mike Zunino (Seattle’s 2012 top draft pick)
3B Kyle Seager
LF Casper Wells
CF Michael Saunders
P Taijuan Walker
P Danny Hultzen
P James Paxton
P Shelby Miller
Throw in high draft picks from the 2013 and 2014 drafts and suddenly the Mariners are loaded with premium young talent at the big league level and in the minors. That roster would be dirt cheap, with Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez off the payroll, leaving plenty of room for free-agent reinforcements or trades for veteran players. It's a team that would be ready to compete with the Rangers and Angels.
And then when Felix becomes a free agent after 2014 ... bring him home.