Felix Hernandez didn’t have to throw a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday to prove he is arguably the most dominant starting pitcher in Major League Baseball.
“King Felix” as he is known in baseball circles is the dictionary definition of an ace. Whether he is on the mound at Safeco Field in Seattle or at any other ballpark, fans flock to the game to see Hernandez pitch. He is the main event.
Unfortunately, for the 26-year-old right-hander and Mariners fans alike, he has never appeared in a post-season game during his eight-year tenure in Seattle. In that time, the Mariners have finished above .500 in just two seasons, 88-74 in 2007 and 85-77 in 2009. Hernandez has been named to three American League All-Star teams (2009, 2011 and 2012), but that hardly mimics the national spotlight of October baseball.
Though the Mariners are headed for another sub-.500 finish – they are currently 55-64 and in the American League West basement – there is optimism in the distance in Seattle.
They have yet to produce as expected in the majors, but 25-year-old first baseman Justin Smoak and 24-year-old second baseman Dustin Ackley have high ceilings. Jesus Montero, the 22-year-old DH/catcher Seattle obtained last off-season for pitcher Michael Pineda, is a middle of the order bat the team can build its lineup around. A first round pick (27th overall) out of high school in 2009, 21-year-old Nick Franklin is a shortstop who hits for average and is getting his first taste of Triple-A after a mid-season promotion.
The Mariners have one of the least productive lineups in baseball, but with the aforementioned young bats, plus the trio of highly regarded starting pitching prospects, they could be competitive in next few seasons.
Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton could join Hernandez in the Mariners rotation in 2013.
Ranked fourth overall on the Baseball America Mid-Season Top 50 Prospects List, the 19-year-old Walker was named to the Futures Game this summer and is already at Double-A Jacksonville, where he is 7-7 with a 4.52 ERA and a .259 batting average against. The right-hander was a first round pick out of high school (43rd overall) in 2010.
One spot below Walker on Baseball America’s list is Hultzen, a 22-year-old left-hander who was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Virginia and a 2012 Futures Game participant. Hultzen posted a 1.19 ERA and a .151 batting average against at Jacksonville this season before earning a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma, where he has a 1-2 record and a 4.71 ERA in eight starts.
A fourth round pick out of the University of Kentucky in 2010, the 23-year-old Paxton is a left-hander who was a 2011 Futures Game participant. He has a 7-4 record and a 3.09 ERA in 18 starts at Double-A Jacksonville.
Seattle’s stockpile of top prospects would dramatically expand if the team decided to trade Hernandez, who is under team control through 2014. He already has more than 1,500 innings over eight major league seasons, so perhaps the Mariners will opt to sell high.
Even with the power presence of Montero and the run-producing potential of Ackley and Smoak, the Mariners desperately need to upgrade their lineup. The Red Sox are one team that could bolster Seattle’s offense. Highly touted prospects like catcher Ryan Lavarnway, shortstop Xander Bogaerts (who could be moved to third base to accommodate Franklin), outfielders Bryce Brentz and Brandon Jacobs and pitchers Jon Lester (who is from Washington) and right-handed prospect Matt Barnes could be packaged in exchange for Hernandez.
Jacoby Ellsbury, who is from Oregon, would give the Mariners a high-profile position player that fans would pay to see. Though Ellsbury is eligible for free agency after 2013, he is represented by Scott Boras, and chances are he will command more than $20 million a year and want a six- or seven-year deal, so he is unlikely to be featured in a trade package beforehand.
Dealing 29-year-old left-hander Jason Vargas and/or 23-year-old right-hander Blake Beaven might make more sense than shipping Hernandez to a new destination. Because of the ceilings of Montero, Ackley and Smoak, plus the highly regarded prospects in the Mariners farm system, building the new generation of Mariners around Hernandez can create a contender in the next few years.
With Walker, Hultzen and Paxton, Seattle could always keep Hernandez, take a Tampa Bay Rays approach, build around strong pitching and try to scratch enough runs together to contend.
Fans at Safeco Field were treated to an exhilarating high with King Felix’s perfect game. They envision the return of celebrating the team’s return to the postseason. That could happen by trading Hernandez and getting a nice haul in return, or by keeping him and surrounding him with productive young talent.
Nobody has ever said that being the general manager of a Major League team is easy work. Just ask Jack Zduriencik, who has that title for the Mariners. He is confronted with the “keep him or trade him” debate on a daily basis.