BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 09/13/2018

Thiel: Mariners lead MLB in awkwardness

In a season rich in awkwardness, the Mariners have lost the race, and still have to pay Felix Hernandez $27M next season. Time for him to get used to the bullpen.

Felix Hernandez can get a start on 2019 by going to the bullpen now. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

In a season of awkwardness — sudden team achievement followed by even more abrupt ineptitude, a forced exit of Ichiro to purgatory, an 80-game suspension of Robinson Cano for PED use, a sex-harassment scandal in the front office, and an inability to improve a contending roster better at mid-season — the Mariners did avert another ghastly moment that may have eclipsed all of those palms-over-face episodes.

They won’t have to deal with a postseason in which Felix Hernandez, the face of the franchise, was deliberately passed over for participation.

After a string of embarrassments and humiliations, the pending absence of another weapons-grade cringe seems almost refreshing.

Man, is the bar low for the Mariners.

Who would have imagined that the failure to make playoffs for the first time since before Lewis met Clark could be seen as having a silver lining?

The prime directive of the season was to end what has become the appalling franchise appendage: Longest active playoff drought in North American big-league pro sports. In a sport bifurcating into a polarized NBA model of haves and have-nots, they bet they were a have. They lost the bet.

The front office used a respectable $165 million player payroll for a good mix of players on the rise and older veterans still near their primes. But they had little margin for error because for most of a decade, they traded prospects to get the players they could roll with in 2018. If this group failed, there were no farm kids ready to at least cause intrigue, if not rescue the enterprise.

They failed, or are at least are drowning, with only seat cushions as flotation devices.

On July 3, starter Wade LeBlanc helped beat the Angels 4-1, the club’s eighth win in a row, to reach 55-31, a half-game behind the AL West lead of the Houston Astros. Since then, the Mariners are 24-35 after the 5-4 loss Wednesday to the National League’s worst team, the San Diego Padres, which swept the four-game series against Seattle.

Worse, the raggedy-ass Oakland A’s, perpetual street urchins on baseball’s Park Avenue, passed them. Barring a collapse, the A’s will play the Yankees in the wild-card playoff game despite losing to injury the entirety of their starting rotation that began the season.

Double worse, the A’s, historically beset by lousy attendance, a lousier stadium and bleak prospects for a new park, will make the playoffs for the sixth time in the 17 years since the Mariners’ last appearance, in the karma-exhausting season of 2001.

That’s 17 years as Elmer Fudd to Billy Beane’s Bugs Bunny, despite the revenues that accrue to the Mariners’ four-state monopoly operation that includes a top-tier stadium and its own regional sports network. The garlic fries remain good, however.

Which brings us back to Hernandez and the decline of his prowess after all of his years as the prime reason to come to the park.

At 32 with a lot of hard miles, Hernandez has not had a win in his past 10 starts, which includes seven losses, plus one relief appearance. In hindsight, the lone bullpen outing  Aug. 14 against Oakland, after James Paxton was struck on his pitching arm by a comebacker, may have been The King’s finest hour of the season.

In 5.2 emergency innings, he allowed two runs on five hits and gave the Mariners a chance, which is all that is asked of him these days. The appearance came four days after his demotion to the pen, ordered in a meeting with manager Scott Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. that was tense. As described by Scott Miller of Bleacher Report in a story this week, Hernandez nearly quit.

“I was like, ‘Should I just take my cleats and go home?'” Hernandez was quoted as saying. Obviously, he didn’t. But his stay in the pen expired because the Paxton injury elevated Hernandez back into the rotation. In the four starts since, he pitched 20 innings and gave up 11 earned runs.

Not good, not terrible. Which is about where his career is, and can be said as well about the Mariners as a whole.

Since the postseason chance decays almost daily, the Mariners are no longer playing for the now, but for the future. Incredibly, the September calendar that seemed in July to be mostly prep time to set up for the postseason, is instead devoted to looking at a few younger players for 2019.

Hernandez need not pitch for the rest of the season. Just as he wouldn’t have been asked to start the wild-card game, nor, in the event of advancement, any game in a series.

But since he is owed $27 million in the final year of a contract extension he signed in 2013, he will be back next season. Which means awkwardness can continue. The Mariners have six starting pitchers under contract in 2019. Barring injury, Felix is No. 6.

To minimize the awkwardness, Hernandez should go back to the bullpen for the rest of September and take the off-season to get his head around being a reliever starting in spring training.

“Let’s face it, where he is this day and age with his stuff, he has to pitch to contact,” Stottlemyre told Bleacher Report.  “He has to rely on getting the ball on the ground. He’s not always able to wipe guys out like he used to.

“With that being said, it’s really important that he gets ahead in good counts, and he’s in good counts with his fastball.”

Hernandez worked his way through the demotion once. The shock has passed. Now he has to do what numerous once-great MLB pitchers have done — embrace the opportunity to go out as a contributor.

Sadly, there is no cap on awkward drama per team. Hernandez can help by imposing one on himself.

 


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YourThoughts

  • coug73

    seat cushions as flotation devices

    The next great Mariners give away promotion.

    • maoling

      I’d also be okay with a Lewis and Clark Bobblehead: AL West Last Conquered — 1805.

      • art thiel

        That’s a second royalty.

    • art thiel

      I should get a royalty, right?

      • coug73

        Your in.

  • Kevin Lynch

    Pay $60 million to three guys (Hernandez, Seager, Cano) with lower than expected contributions and you will hamstring yourself for the playoffs. Jacky Z did some damage with those long term contracts. But they really didn’t lose anything ‘winnable’ this year because it is looking likely that there will be four teams above 95 wins in the American League. Expecting a team to win 90 games is one thing but expecting them to play .600 ball is another. Can you imagine the M’s winning 95 or 96 games and NOT making the playoffs? 95 wins will not get the job done this year unless you’re in Cleveland. Odd year. Maybe the first year ever with four 100 win teams in one league.

    • art thiel

      Good point about the imbalance, which Dipoto predicted in Jan. Still, missing the playoffs is missing the playoffs.

      For the Mariners to get blitzed by the A’s with all their injuries, that’s mortifying.

  • David Flock

    THE mariners have no talent in the upper reaches in the farm system is due to Fat Jacks picks in the draft, a series of so called power hitters who bombed out and are out of baseball. Fat Jack was the so called draft expert what a loser he was. Any talent in the current farm system are years away from Safco Field which by the way will be renamed soon.

    • art thiel

      I think Dipoto’s emphasis on player development in the minors will pay off, but not in 2019.

  • Matt712

    In the the end, the M’s will have landed about where they were predicted this season. But how they got there, no one saw coming. Pitching was suppose to be the weakness; manufacturing runs was supposed to be the strength. Instead, run production has been simply abysmal. Not sure how to grade out management in that respect.

    Might as well get whatever we can out of Felix for one more year. But, I don’t expect him to successfully change his game any more than I expect Kyle Seager to beat the shift, or Zunino to stop chasing pitches. Felix is a thoroughbred, not a journeyman. Now, these poster boys for the playoff drought are probably the most culpable in keeping the team from moving forward.

    I know it’s a little premature for a postmortem, but hey, at least it’s not July.

    • art thiel

      The obits will keep coming, because this seasonal death has many layers.

  • 1coolguy

    It’s football season – who cares?

  • Ed Norton

    One piece of good news is that the Mariners won’t have to worry about how to replace Cano in the lineup for the playoffs. That question, which was much discussed after the announcement of his drug suspension back in the halcyon days of May, took care of itself with the regression to traditional piss-poor status.

    • art thiel

      I forgot to mention the Cano awkwardness averted. Thanks,

  • Richie Rich

    Now that they’re essentially out of the playoff race, we as fans will get to enjoy their annual “Too Little, Too Late” hot streak! Yeah!

    • art thiel

      Tradition.

  • Tian Biao

    ah yes, the annual Mariner seasonal post-mortem. at least it came a little later this year, ie Sept 13, rather than, say, mid-June. rest in peace, 2018 Mariners, it was good to know you. see y’all next February, when we can look forward to meeting the talented new rookie prospects, the young up-and-comers who will lead us back to the playoffs. wait . . . what’s that? . . . we don’t have any talented young prospects? never mind. see you next February anyway.

    • art thiel

      Where did you go, D.J. Peterson?

  • woofer

    After an excitingly improbable early season run, the sudden plunge into irrelevancy is indeed bitter medicine to swallow. Especially when the final ignominious shove over the edge was provided by the hapless Padres. Talk about salt in the wounds of futility. No bobblehead night, however gloriously sentimental, can hope to relieve the pain.

    The irony that the guy who carried the Ms through the wilderness for so many years with so little support, Felix, was a key factor in the collapse is surely palpable. It is also too bad that it is likely not in Felix’s kingly nature to attempt to reinvent himself as Jamie Moyer. And it is probably a disaster that the desperate effort to cobble together an immediate contender out of junkyard parts and baling wire led Dipoto to wipe out an already anemic farm system. All the proverbial eggs were placed in a single basket. After this year it’s likely a continued downward slide until Cano lands in his rocking chair and the farm system can be rebuilt.

    In an early season post I suggested that the Mariners have a real shot at claiming to be the most consistently feckless and benighted franchise in major league history. The Wise One responded with his quite reasonable view that we still lag a bit behind the Nationals for long-term historic futility. And nothing that happened this year would alter that calculation — the Nats perhaps even exceeding the Ms in the realm of falling far short of expectations.

    But the Nats’ problems are primarily ones of chemistry rather than talent; their window of opportunity will remain open. It is not impossible to visualize them down the road getting their heads straightened out and making it into the World Series. If that happens, the claim of our local heroes to the futility title will look pretty strong.

    So, in this darkest of hours, be of good cheer. Time is on our side.

  • jafabian

    Hopefully Felix will work with the club on putting together an offseason plan on rebounding from this season. I’m sure he’ll reach out to some older vets (Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia come to mind) on how they adjusted their game when they became older. Felix needs to accept he isn’t physically the same as he was a few years ago and he needs to do more than learn a new pitch. But his issues were only the tip of the iceberg.

    The meat of the batting order had a difficult season. Cruz seemed to be always hurt, Seager fell victim to the Seager shift and Cano..well, you know. Paxton also couldn’t stay healthy and the bullpen, other than Diaz, was inconsistent. But if anything I can’t say with certainty that this team can handle the pressure of a pennant race. A must trait under Lou Pinella. A few probably can but a few isn’t enough. If Jerry Dipoto can bring in players who can then the drought will end.

  • DonMac

    The fact that the Mariners weren’t able to do anything at the trade deadline wasn’t any surprise. The Mariners knew last winter during free agency that they had nothing in the cupboard to trade with so instead of at least trying to sign some free agents to bolster the team, most notably the pitching staff, Dipoto tries to justify the Mariners inaction on the pitching front by arguing that their pitching staff was set. Art, you understandably questioned that logic at the time. If Dipoto actually assumed that Paxton would stay healthy all season (he didn’t) and that Hernandez was actually going to bounce back to being the Felix of old (he didn’t) then the guy doesn’t deserve to be a GM. I think the reason the Mariners didn’t pursue anyone in free agency had everything to do with the owner being too cheap. New owner, same cheap mindset. I don’t know how the free agents who were available last winter did this season and I don’t care because the billionaire can afford the expense. To me it’s all about showing the fans that you’re serious about winning and you do that in part by spending, especially when you don’t have the talent in the organization to build your team through trades. The Mariners will never amount to anything until they completely wipe the slate clean by selling the team and brining in a an entirely new front office. That won’t happen because the capital value of the Mariners will continue to grow and the owners will continue to reap the windfall whether the Mariners win or lose. I’m incredibly cynical but that’s what following 40 years of Mariners futility does to one.

    • Husky73

      $165 million is not cheap. Stanton is committed to winning.

    • art thiel

      Even if they knew in Jan they wouldn’t do anything in July, it’s still embarrassing.

      It has nothing to do with cheapness. They need talent in the farm system to make deals, and between draft busts and weak trades, they exhausted the resource. Stanton is nothing like the regime under Howard Lincoln.

      • DonMac

        I hope so Art but you’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical that Stanton is anything but the same old, same old. The fact that he did nothing about the executive accused of sexual harassment or the millions in improvements he wants made to Safeco sounds like not much has changed.

  • Ron
  • Larry StoneB

    They lost two games to San Diego. It only SEEMED like four.

    • art thiel

      Four for the season series. Don’t let the M’s off light.

  • Husky73

    As the self proclaimed 2018 Mariner Optimist, I had some good times in spite of Mather-gate, Robbie-gate, Felix-gate and Pete von Reichbauer repair-gate. The highlight of the season was “the eagle has landed.” I now return to being the 2019 Mariner Realist, looking forward to walking into Post-Intelligencer Stadium, Ichiro going 0 for 6 in Japan, Zunino leading all of baseball in swings and misses while again hitting under the Mendoza line, Seager (stretching his face and chest, tapping his toes, and pawing at the batter’s box) and facing a defense with 7 defenders on the second base side, Cano sauntering up the first base line, The King’s right arm flying off and into the screen in his second relief appearance (to the horror of the 37 fans left in the King’s court), Vogelberg (the size of a sumo wrestler) helicoptering daily– courtesy of JBLM– between Tacoma and Seattle, and Mike Blowers setting an unbreakable record by saying “miles an hour” 93 times in one broadcast. Hopefully, the Bad Dancer will make an appearance or two.

    • art thiel

      Helluva summary. I forgot about Bad Dancer. Hope he wasn’t traded for a reliever.

  • Alan Harrison

    So next year, we’re talking about Paxton, Leake, Gonzales, Somebody Who Isn’t Erasmo, and Somebody Who Might Be Iwakuma (remember him? ahh, good times.). Felix has to learn a knuckleball or he’s a sunk $27M that a braver front office might DFA, despite the fans. Throw in fifty relievers or so, because the DL stint that Edwin Diaz is likely to endure promises to be monumental. Cano at 1B, Gordon (oh, Dee, what happened???) at 2B, Segura at short. Haniger somewhere in the OF. Gamel must have slept with DiPoto’s wife or something – they just don’t trust him. Heredia as 4th OF. Maybe bring up Lewis, although .220 in the TX league is nothing to crow about. Alternate versions of Span and Maybin somewhere in the OF. Healy at 3B…give cash and Seager to the Dodgers to play with his brother, maybe get a Dodger Dog in return. DH Cruz signs a 2-year deal and starts off like Ibanez in his final year – and ends up like ibanez in his final year. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2019 Seattle Mariners.

    • Sonics79

      Nice job raising a question that I haven’t seen mentioned before, what happened to Dee Gordon? He was amazing until July and seemed to epitomize the team at that point. Segura’s recent problems I understand because he’s a new father. But I don’t know what happened to Dee, although maybe he’s still mirroring the team by his struggles. I’ll have to wait for an answer until the forthcoming postmortems Art predicts.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for that. You saved me a lot of time,

      • Alan Harrison

        I live to serve.

  • 1coolguy

    Uh, the M’s have been consistent in one thing – tripping over their own dicks.
    Without delving into the particulars, in the 1990’s they cannot pay Johnson or A-Rod, yet they can pay Felix another $27M next year?
    As I say, at least the organization is consistent in their buffoonery.
    Thank god it’s football season!

    • art thiel

      Regarding your payroll recall, the Mariners were in the Kingdome with A-Rod and Unit. At the Safeco money machine, they can pay Felix, Cano, Seager and have plenty left for ice cream.