BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 02/14/2019

Thiel: The awkwardness of Felix and Mariners

Felix Hernandez is determined to pitch, meaning the Mariners likely are headed to more awkwardness. Just don’t let him drive away in the middle of the night.

The Kid and the King. Will it be awkward again? / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

The Mariners’ self-described theme for this season is “a step back.” Not that they plan to use it as a marketing slogan. While the move wouldn’t be as embarrassing as, say, former Sonics owner Howard Schultz threatening to run for president, there’s only so many tinfoil hats that can be tolerated in a single sports market.

But as spring training gets underway in Peoria, AZ., this week, perhaps the Mariners’ 2019 circumstances could best be described by another phrase: Team Awkward.

The notion of tanking a season or three in order to improve in the long term has gained increasingly widespread acceptance in MLB. But none of the adopters are stepping back from 17 seasons in a row without playoffs.

Awkward.

The off-season was convulsed by charges from the team’s high-performance director, Dr. Lorena Martin, that GM Jerry Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and farm director Andy McKay made sexist and racist remarks, and also damaged her ability to do her job, from which she was fired in October.

While the results released last week of an investigation by MLB into the episode found no evidence to support her charges, Martin in December filed a wrongful-termination suit in King County Superior Court and wrote last week on social media that she plans to pursue justice:

Awkward.

Next month, the Mariners play the Athletics in the regular season’s first two games in Tokyo, where the expectation is to see Ichiro, 45, in the lineup. This is despite strong evidence from 15 games (nine singles in 47 plate appearances) in 2018 that he can no longer play at the MLB level. So when the 28-man roster for the Japan games is cut to 25, the Mariners must decide whether to keep him on the roster, cut one of the game’s most iconic players, or re-install him in his made-up job as assistant to the chairman.

Awkward.

Now comes the final contract year of the storied career of another Mariners icon,  Felix Hernandez.

Awkward.

Obligated to pay him $27 million despite coming off his career-worst season (8-14, 5,88 ERA, -1.2 WAR), the Mariners seem to have no graceful exit strategy for the seven-time All-Star selection and Cy Young Award winner. Maybe there is none.

Hernandez insists he is still a competitive pitcher, defiantly telling reporters Wednesday on reporting day that last season was irrelevant.

“That’s the past,” he said. “I don’t care what happened last season. I just got here, and it’s a new year. I just want to get ready to play baseball.

“I know it’s my final year. But I don’t think I’m done.”

His 2,658 career innings pitched is fifth-most among active starters, trailing only C.C. Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Justin Verlander and Zach Greinke, and he is the youngest among them (33 in April). But the miles seem harder on him, perhaps because he needed to be more committed to fitness and less committed to pitching the fireballing way he did when he was in his prime. (And please don’t analogize to the 45-year-old Colon; he’s as inexplicable as gravel ice cream.)

He doesn’t want to be retired (and lose $27 million), a reliever or a minor leaguer, and the Mariners can’t find a trade partner for him unless they throw in Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and the Space Needle.

So that means he’s somewhere in a rotation that includes Gonzales, Mike Leake, Yusei Kikuchi and Wade LeBlanc. It’s actually a fairly seasoned group. In a year dedicated to development instead of contention, an aspiration for the fifth spot should be a youngster such as Justus Sheffield, the well-regarded lefty acquired from the Yankees.

But Hernandez seems to have the spot.

Maybe he will earn it with a good spring. He needs to be given every chance to prove he can deliver some quality innings.

If not, perhaps the Mariners need to prepare one of their always spot-on tribute nights.

They shouldn’t want a repeat of the exit of Ken Griffey Jr. in June 2010. Hitting .184 in 98 at-bats, Griffey had his car towed to the stadium garage. After the game and without a word, he jumped in the car and drove to his home in Orlando. End of career.

At the time, he was criticized by many, including me, for the unceremonious departure. Upon reflection, I understand it. He didn’t want to be hailed at one of the most sad, depressing moments of his life, in the middle of a bad season. People may disagree, but he’s entitled to his own feelings ahead of the fans’ feelings.

Still, it was awkward.

If Hernandez can’t prove himself before Opening Day, persuasively commit to him that his career is eminently worthy of a civic celebration. Hail to the King. Fifi Forever. Hernan-Days. Whatever. And fly in his pal, Adrian Beltre.

Don’t wait until he hurts himself on the mound and limps off with an impulsive, Earl Thomas-style salute aimed at the owners’ suite.

Then make him assistant to the chairman, John Stanton. It’s been done before, a franchise can never be too deep at the spot, and for outfit that knows awkward, it’s better to be a little awkward than a lot awkward.

 


YourThoughts

  • dingle

    Pitchers and catchers have reported. Hope springs eternal. The sun is shining in Peoria.

    No, wait, it’s not. It’s cold and rainy today, and cold and kinda cloudy the rest of the week.

    Which seems all too appropriate the for beginning of Mariners baseball in 2019.

    It would be nice if Felix shows that he still has something left. But if I were a betting man, I’d wager against. His arm is tired from all the innings, and his shoulders are tired from carrying the hopes of the franchise for too many years.

    • art thiel

      Missing the playoffs for the entirety of his mostly stellar career is one of the great shames in Seattle sports. At least Ichiro had 2001.

  • Mark Stratton

    Felix has known for at least two years that he needs to change his approach to be an effective starter and, so far, has been unable or unwilling to do so. Hopefully this Spring he’ll show that he finally got the message. If not, the awkwardness will proceed.

    In true Mariners fashion, I expect him to be a flop this year and have an ugly parting with Seattle. Then next year he’ll figure it out and win 20 games for the A’s.

    • art thiel

      He’s resisted the analytics that inform him what works when against whom. He’s working against his own best interests, and helped get Stottlemyre ousted.

      • Kristafarian

        He could still be great AND have Fun outwitting (most) hitters.

        Sometimes, ya just gotta hit Bottom, first, to see which way’s up.

        • art thiel

          That’s what the Mariners hope. A final chance to allow the light to go on.

  • Alan Harrison

    Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais haven’t really been a part of Felix’s career, which is good for the Mariners. They will more easily tell him to learn a knuckleball (his best route to extending his career), take coaching from Jamie Moyer (or even Wade LeBlanc), or walk into the sunset with a slow fastball and a straight sinker. This is all worse than Steve Carlton’s last years, where, in retrospect, he had better numbers than Felix. I figure they’ll give him some version of opening day (whether that’s Japan or the home opener) and maybe one or two more starts. Then, assuming he’s sporting an ERA north of 6, give him the long-relief job, the Spanish-language broadcasting job (see Fernando Valenzuela), or the flat DFA/retirement route.

    • art thiel

      The money is guaranteed as long as he doesn’t retire. He could join the front office and help with the next appeal for public funds for stadium maintenance.

  • Tian Biao

    now THAT is a good idea! make Felix a special assistant to the chairman, along with Ichiro. Maybe Lorena Martin too? that might mollify her. and why stop there? Seager would look good in a suit. Dee Gordon, Dan Vogelbach, Jay Bruce . . . move ’em in and out of the special assistant role, instead of shipping them to Tacoma and back. that is advanced new millennium thinking there, Art. Everyone is a winner!

    • art thiel

      Just invite me the to Special Assistants party in Maui, or Bali,or wherever. They can afford it.

  • coug73

    If Felix turns his career towards the positive, it’s a new story. If Felix fails to preform he should cooperate with management and except his fate.

    For me, having Ichiro on the team in Japan is his last playing days with the M’s, perhaps it will be Felix’s last days with M’s.

    • art thiel

      Might be. Better to crash half a world away than at Magenta Field.

      • coug73

        Magenta Field, gross.

  • 1coolguy

    Both Griffey and Felix were young phenoms who were tagged as sure HOF material after their first few seasons. Both were naturals who showed up year after year and performed among the best. Unfortunately neither developed a workout regimen to keep their bodies in excellent shape and to extend their careers. Griffey started getting hurt and retired earlier than he would have if he had kept in great shape.
    Now Felix, having learned NOTHING from Griffeys’ experience, has never kept himself in shape, as he was all natural – well, age has caught up with him and apparently he is too stupid or lazy or both to honor his contract and be a leader and stay in top condition. Unlike Griffey, who is in the HOF, Felix has taken a sure HOF career and flushed it. Apparently he must be surrounded by “yes” men and his agent should be held up as the most inept, foolish agent alive. Maybe Edgar can have a sit down with this “dumb and dumber” fellow.

    • art thiel

      Felix isn’t dumb, just stubborn, as are many MLB players and coaches when it comes to adapting to new ways. That’s why Dipoto is here — he was fired by the Angels owner when Mike Scioscia threw analytics in Dipoto’s face.

      • Husky73

        What Dipoto has done is churn. The result? Overall the team is weaker, and the payroll is not tremendously different from last year. The farm system is apparently improved, but is it in the top half of MLB? And, what am I to make of the West Virginia Power and the Modesto Nuts?

        • Steve Buckholdt

          Improving a farm system which was at, or at least near, the bottom of all of MLB could not have been that hard. Maybe Dipoto has strengthened the Tacoma Rainiers and below, but I would have hoped the idea was to improve the Mariners. Adding 2-3 years of step-back to the hard time 17 year sentence we Mariner fans have already served is cruel and unusual punishment.

          • art thiel

            Your last sentence is a good summary of the fan predicament.

        • art thiel

          It’s true that the churn has gotten the Mariners nowhere. Dipoto made a mistake in thinking he could trade his way out of a bankrupt farm system and build around a core that was proven weak.

  • Guy K. Browne

    I was in the Kingdome for Griffey’s 1st home at bat, he hit an opposite field home run and a legend was taking shape. I was in the Kingdome when Edgar hit “the double” for the Mariners 1st playoff series win, a moment that you couldn’t write into a script because nobody would believe it. I was at Safeco Field for a good number of the games in 2001 when the Mariners were killing it, night in and night out, amassing a gaudy 116 wins. Baseball is delicious when well prepared and served. But Holy Crap… nearly 20 years of futility… as fans we’ve paid our dues, it’s time for the club to pay theirs. None of the excuses matter anymore, they need to give the fans a reason to care. I feel bad that during his prime Felix never got a chance to contend for anything, that’s not his fault. But neither is it the fault of the fans. Pay him the $27M to be an assistant pitching coach, or to just go sit on a beach somewhere. If young talent needs to be developed and therefore needs innings, they should get them, the fans deserve that… are owed that as much as if not more than Felix is owed his salary for this year.

    • art thiel

      Well said, Guy. “Stepping back” to win in three years from now doesn’t help those paying 2019 dollars, nor their predecessors who stepped forward with ticket money and tax dollars.

  • Husky73

    It’s more than awkward. It is so flippin’ HARD to be a Mariners fan. Maybe there’s a new arena deal that they can stub their toe on? Why is it so difficult for them to do the right thing? It’s two days in, and the dark specters of Felix and Ichiro are already hovering over Peoria. Buehner, Wilson, Davis and Ichiro are already some kind of executive assistants doing next to nothing. How about Griffey and Edgar? I hear Bryan Turang is available (maybe he can deliver the M’s his son?). Can we please move on from 1995 and 2001? It’s 2019. The chairman doesn’t need any more baggage. He’s got 42 years of it. Give Felix the opportunity to show that he can pitch at spring training. If he does, he gets starter #5 to begin the season. If not, let him go. He has made nearly $200 million. He is owed no apologies. Can we please get on with the 2019 season, and not be stepping on egg shells? The Astros, A’s, Rangers and Angels await.

    • art thiel

      I think Dipoto and Servais are willing to make the tough call. I think Stanton is smart enough to realize that fans who would object to Felix’s departure are a distinct minority. The $27M is already a sunk cost. Give his rotation turns to the kids.

      • Husky73

        I disagree. Dipoto and Servais should have made the calls in December. Here we are in Arizona in February. I had high hopes for Stanton, thinking that he would be a right-thinking, common sense leader and a huge improvement over the Nintendo quartet. Thus far, he’s not.

        • art thiel

          I think they feel obliged to let Felix demonstrate in spring that he’s changed and can help. That cost’s the M’s almost nothing.

          Stanton remains a quality owner, but lots of earlier decisions still haunt the org, and backing down from contention now never can be a good look.

  • DonMac

    Well said Art, I suppose 40+ years of futility explains the rampant dysfunction throughout this organization. The Mariners are a magnet for incompetence, incompetent ownership, incompetent on-the-field management (with the notable exception of Lou) and an incompetent front office. Seattle fans of all sports are among the best in the country and they deserve so much better. A special prosecutor should be appointed just to investigate the collusion that has gone on for nearly half a century to defraud the fans of their hard earned dollars.

    • art thiel

      Special counsel? Perhaps instead we can declare the Mariners a national emergency, so that we can take money away from military hospitals and give it to Bryce Harper.

      • DonMac

        Better still, why don’t we have Donald Trump buy the M’s and move them to Riyadh.

  • Pete Tsarria

    I was at Nolan Ryans’ last game. Felix deserves to go out on a higher note than that, for sure.

    • art thiel

      Hollywood endings are so rare for premier athletes.