Return of the King: A Mariners turnaround hinges on Hernandez

Felix Hernandez could be difference in Seattle making a push for the postseason. Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

Could the Seattle Mariners still make us "experts" look good? It's becoming less possible by the week as we creep closer to the trade deadline, and hopes for a sudden turnaround might depend on the impossible-to-read near future of King Felix Hernandez.

We're way past the point where we can reasonably hope for the return of the younger, dominant version of Hernandez. His average fastball velocity was 91.1 mph last season, per FanGraphs, and it's 91.3 this year. He just isn't going to blow away hitters with raw stuff -- not anymore. Now it's about mixing pitches and setting up his change, curve and slider and getting ground balls with his sinker.

And that's fine. Hernandez has always been about much more than his once-transcendent stuff; that's why he shouldn't be evaluated by his velo readings, but by his results. And that's why it's a concern that, more and more, the Mariners just don't know what to expect when King Felix takes the mound.

A glance at the sub-categories in my starting-pitcher tier ratings tells this story. Hernandez ranks 13th in ACE rating, putting him squarely in the middle of Tier 2. That's front-of-the-rotation stuff. But while he ranks ninth in the frequency of dominant outings, he is just 30th in consistency. Since the beginning of 2014, Hernandez has had 13 starts in which he has given up at least six runs.

Hernandez worked in and out of trouble during a five-inning start against the White Sox in Chicago on Saturday, allowing one earned run and three overall. He gave up a leadoff home run to Melky Cabrera (leadoff homers are a bad habit he seems to have picked up lately), hit Jose Abreu twice, uncorked a wild pitch and threw away a ball on a relatively easy comebacker.

"Felix did not have his best stuff tonight," manager Scott Servais said afterward. "Struggled with his location and got behind hitters. But to his credit, he wiggled out of it and stayed away from the big inning."

The outing was Hernandez's fifth since coming off the disabled list, but it was his first since closing the first half with six promising shutout innings against Oakland, when he gave up two hits and struck out a season-high eight. His game score (73) was a season best and his highest since Sept. 21 of last season.

Game scores of 70 or better were once a regular thing for Hernandez. He had 17 of them in 2014 and 11 or more in seven straight seasons ending in 2015 -- but he has had just five total such games since then.

With other facets of the Mariners coming together, his pre-All-Star performance seemed hopeful. Maybe that hope still shines, since Hernandez ended up getting the win in Chicago after all. Still, if the outing wasn't exactly a step back, it was a continuation of the up-and-down nature of this version of Hernandez.

"Battled my mechanics," Hernandez said. "I was all over the place. Can't remember when I hit the same batter twice in a game. It's not a step back. I've been off for four days. That's what happens. You get into a routine every day, you feel much better."

Seattle badly needs Hernandez to settle into that routine and thrive in it. The problem is the Mariners might be one difference-making starter (in addition to James Paxton) from making a real push for the postseason. And everything from the design of the roster to the structure of the payroll demands that that guy be Hernandez.

Before the season, the Mariners were the most popular pick for an American League wild-card spot among the staff here at ESPN. There were nine teams represented in that polling, which kind of foretold the cluttered wild-card race we're seeing right now in the junior circuit. But the Mariners were the most common selection, and I was one of eight who saw them as a contender.

I ranked Seattle ninth in MLB before the season, according to the preseason version of my power ratings. And even as the Mariners limped to a slow start, their ranking remained high through mid-May, almost entirely on the basis of those preseason expectations. As the forecasts were gradually phased out of the power rankings formula, the Mariners dropped and eventually cratered at No. 21 on May 26.

Seattle got hot right after that, rose to the middle of the ranking and have hovered there for several weeks. In some respects, in terms of setting a direction at the trade deadline, it would have been better for the Mariners either to continue their rise or bounce back down toward the bottom.

After Sunday's comeback win over the White Sox, the Mariners drew within a game of .500 -- a level they haven't reached June 25. Their playoff chances, based on my simulations, stand at 11.2 percent through Sunday's play, and Seattle is within three or so games of the second wild-card slot in the AL. (Forget about the division they share with the Houston Astros. That race has been over for weeks.)

The one-run win also drew Seattle even for the season in run differential. So, this is a team about as stuck in the middle as you can get. Still, if the Mariners are mediocre, they are mediocre with a bullet. A slow bullet -- the Mariners were once minus-40 when at their nadir -- but the overall trend has been positive.

What made the Mariners look attractive before the season was their solid offensive core of impact veterans: Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano and Jean Segura. The big weakness on last year's team was defense, especially in the outfield. During the offseason, general manager Jerry Dipoto attacked that problem, acquiring young outfielders Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger.

The rotation looked good on paper with Hernandez, the emergent Paxton, the newly acquired Drew Smyly and seemingly solid depth in Hisashi Iwakuma, Yovani Gallardo and Ariel Miranda. If the outfield plan worked and paid off in improved defense, if the first-base platoon of Danny Valencia and Dan Vogelbach worked and if the bullpen performed adequately, the Mariners had the formula for some low-level contention.

That's a lot of ifs, but a lot of those have happened. The outfield plan has worked way better than Dipoto could have hoped; Seattle ranks fifth in the majors in outfield WAR even though projected center fielder Leonys Martin performed so poorly he was sent to Triple-A Tacoma. In a non-Aaron Judge universe, Gamel would in the running for AL Rookie of the Year and Haniger would get some votes, as well, despite some injury issues. The Mariners rank 14th overall in defensive runs saved, which is a stark turnaround from last year's defensive train wreck.

The offense ranks sixth in adjusted OPS+, and the position players as a whole rank 12th or better at seven of nine positions, including top eight rankings at five.

After a poor start, the bullpen has recently become a strength -- even though closer Edwin Diaz occasionally keeps things more interesting than manager Scott Servais would like -- and the unit seems to be gathering momentum. When pitching with leads, the current setup staff has sparkled. Tony Zych (0.75 ERA when pitching with the lead), Steve Cishek (1.08), James Pazos (1.23) and Nick Vincent (1.83) have all contributed. Veteran lefty killer Marc Rzepczynski hasn't given up a run in those spots. Seattle ranks just 22nd in reliever WAR and 24th in holds-plus-saves conversion percentage, but the recent trend has been excellent.

But for that to matter, the starting rotation has to give the resurgent bullpen leads to protect. And for that to happen, Servais has to be able to settle on a smallish group of options.

Seattle's rotation was bedeviled by injuries early in the season. Smyly's season was over before it started because of a left-arm flexor strain. Paxton spent time on the DL, and so did Hernandez, who missed nearly two months with right-shoulder bursitis. Iwakuma is on the DL with shoulder problems. All in all, the Mariners have used 13 starters and are tied with Cincinnati for the most in the majors.

That shame of it is that Paxton has emerged as a true ace, a fact that would give the Mariners a lethal one-two combo if Hernandez could approach his former dominance. Miranda has been the one Seattle starter to be healthy and mostly reliable all season. But with Iwakuma still out, Servais has continued to juggle rotation options such as Sam Gaviglio and rookie Andrew Moore.

It's a rickety setup, one that would be well fortified by a return to prominence from Hernandez. This is the very portrait of a team that might be poised to coalesce for a playoff run -- if the face of their franchise is up to the task. In fact, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Seattle goes all-in at the deadline, and/or follows that up with a late-season run, that does not include a string of good outings from Hernandez.

The Mariners need their king to return, and time is running short.