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August 2, 2012

The Process

The Mariners' Missed Opportunity

by Bradley Ankrom

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A true no. 1 starter is the rarest commodity in baseball, and the Seattle Mariners have had one in Felix Hernandez for the better part of a decade. Unfortunately, much of Hernandez’s value has been wasted on uncompetitive clubs: only twice since he reached the big leagues in 2005 have the Mariners finished above .500.

The subject of dealing their homegrown superstar is a sensitive one for Mariners fans, but an objective look at the facts suggests that the future of the organization would be much brighter if general manager Jack Zduriencik had moved Hernandez to a contender for a package of young impact bats that are close to big-league ready prior to this summer's non-waiver trade deadline.

Why Hernandez is so valuable
Since 2008, Felix Hernandez has been one of the game’s dozen most valuable pitchers, averaging 231 innings, 2.94 strikeouts per walk, and a 2.89 ERA in four full seasons. Mariners pitchers are helped by their pitcher-friendly home park, but Hernandez has been nearly as effective on the road over the course of his career. In fact, no pitcher in baseball has thrown 1,500 innings since 2005 with better ERA, H/9, HR/9, SO/9, and BB/9 rates than Hernandez has had away from Safeco Field. Overall, Hernandez ranks among the top 15 pitchers in PWARP since 2005, though he is the only one who will begin the 2013 season under the age of 29.

The final key to Hernandez’s value is the team-friendliness of his contract. He’s signed through 2014 at an annual average of $19.75 million, which is a bargain compared to the deals signed by Matt Cain (average of $21.25 million per season through 2017) and Cole Hamels ($24 million/year through 2018) earlier this year.

Pitcher 2013 Age W-L ERA GS IP SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 Contract
Felix Hernandez 27 94-72 3.20 227 1543.3 8.3 2.7 0.7 $39.5M through 2014
Matt Cain 28 79-76 3.30 223 1459.0 7.5 3.1 0.8 $127.5M through 2017
Cole Hamels 29 88-59 3.39 200 1300.0 8.5 2.3 1.1 $144M through 2018

Why he should have been traded
Despite the major-league team’s current hot streak, Seattle’s core is full of questions. 

Coming into the year, it appeared that the next competitive Mariners team would have an infield anchored by Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Kyle Seager. Seager is the only one of the three who hasn't fallen well short of expectations this year, and he also possesses the fewest physical tools. Smoak, the centerpiece of the 2010 trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas, was recently demoted to Triple-A after hitting .217/.292/.368 as a Mariner, and Ackley has followed up a strong 2011 debut with a .249 TAv sophomore effort.

In the outfield, Michael Saunders has enjoyed a modest breakout after three seasons of .196/.263/.306 performance. After missing much of last year with internal and abdominal ailments, center fielder Franklin Gutierrez has appeared in only a handful of games while battling chest, foot, and head injuries. Last month’s trade of Ichiro Suzuki has freed up playing time for Trayvon Robinson and Carlos Peguero, both of whom have limited upsides.

The only occasional bright spot has been the performance of Jesus Montero, acquired last winter in a surprising challenge trade for pitcher Michael Pineda. Though he’s struggled with consistency this year, Montero has posted the third-highest OPS (.709) among Mariners regulars.

Over the last three seasons, Mariners hitters have posted three of the 13 worst team True Average seasons; Houston is the only other organization to fare worse. 

Seattle’s farm system is even more unbalanced than its major-league roster, heavily favoring pitchers and featuring few impact hitters. Mike Zunino immediately became the Mariners’ best batting prospect when the club selected him out of Florida with the third-overall pick in last June’s Rule 4 draft. Shortstops Nick Franklin and Brad Miller could reach Seattle in 2013, but neither is a lock to stay at the position. The best prospects in the system are pitchers Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen, and you could argue for James Paxton slotting ahead of Zunino, Franklin, and Miller.

Walker, Hultzen, and Paxton have all pitched at Double-A or higher and should see the big leagues next year, if not sooner. The talent level of that pitching threesome is enormous, but without an offense that can score runs, that talent will be largely wasted.

Hernandez’s combination of talent, performance, age, and contract would have made him vastly more attractive than the top pitcher moved this summer, Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke. According to Kevin Goldstein, the Brewers netted the second-, fourth-, and sixth-best prospects (Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg, and Ariel Pena) moved at the deadline from Anaheim in exchange for Greinke, who is scheduled to test free agency for the first time after the season.

Dealing Hernandez this summer would have given his acquiring team three potential playoff runs with a bona fide ace at the top of their pitching rotation. With the non-waiver deadline passed, Seattle will likely have to wait until the offseason to consider trade possibilities. 

Why he wasn’t traded
Zduriencik has never given any indication that he’s willing to deal the ace of his pitching rotation, so it was no surprise that when the clock struck four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, Felix Hernandez was still a member of the Mariners. 

Two possible reasons why:

  1. The exodus of Ichiro Suzuki left the Mariners with one marketable superstar: Hernandez. It’s possible that off-the-field interests outweighed the long-term interests of the major-league roster. 
  2. Management believes that the current core is closer to coalescing into a competitive unit than people outside the organization realize.

The future
Without an infusion of hitting talent, Seattle appears destined for perpetual mediocrity in one of the strongest, most resourceful divisions in the game. General manager Jack Zduriencik has been leading the organization’s rebuilding effort since after the 2008 season, but he isn’t under contract beyond next year. Given the state of the organization, as well as his career within said organization, it would have made sense for Zduriencik to cash in his most valuable asset to fill multiple holes on the big-league roster. Having a pitcher like King Felix can be fun for fans and executives alike, but running out a balanced, competitive roster is even more rewarding.

39 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

John Geer
(44)

"a package of young impact bats that are close to big-league ready"

So, what are we talking here, Profar and Olt? Seriously, what's the return on Felix, and who among the contenders best fits that bill?

Aug 02, 2012 04:55 AM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

I intentionally avoided laying out potential trade scenarios but, yes, Texas is probably the best (albeit unlikely) fit for the Mariners if they're going to deal Hernandez. Boston also possesses intriguing young talent (Middlebrooks, Ellsbury, Brentz, Bradley) that is close to or already contributing in the major leagues.

Aug 02, 2012 04:59 AM
rating: 0
 
This guy

I'd be interested in hearing about the situations where trading a pitcher of Felix's age and caliber worked out for the team dealing said player. I think it'd be a short list.

Aug 02, 2012 05:11 AM
rating: 4
 
Behemoth

On the other hand, not dealing the star player doesn't work out often either. We just don't see it as a big reason to criticise a GM when his team loses a player like Hernandez to free agency despite having been non-competitive for years. Probably we should change that.

Aug 02, 2012 07:17 AM
rating: 3
 
Bradley Ankrom

The closest recent comparable (in terms of age, control, talent) I can think of is Zack Greinke, though I believe Hernandez would fetch much more.

Aug 02, 2012 08:05 AM
rating: 0
 
drawbb

Toronto's trade of Roy Halladay to Philadelphia also might qualify to be included in such an analysis, and right now you could definitely say his absence hurt the 2012 Blue Jay team quite a bit (aside from the separate question of whether he'd still have gotten hurt had he remained in Toronto).

Aug 03, 2012 11:26 AM
rating: 1
 
buddaley

How about to Kansas City for a package built around Wil Myers?Maybe include a lesser prospect like Clint Robinson and one somewhere in between.

Aug 02, 2012 05:58 AM
rating: -1
 
Bradley Ankrom

I don't think Zduriencik even dignifies that with a response; a conversation with Kansas City would probably have to start with Hosmer or Moustakas.

Aug 02, 2012 07:57 AM
rating: 0
 
jj0501

Until the Safeco issue is addressed "impact bats" is a moot
point. I'm not saying Smoak and Ackley's failings are entirely stadium related but they have each made public comments on the topic. The mere fact they are even commenting on the possibilty is a red flag. The hitting stats on the road tell you some raw talent is there.

Aug 02, 2012 07:00 AM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

I don't think it's as dire as you make it sound. Good hitters will hit wherever they are; problem is that they Mariners do not have nearly enough good hitters (I count MAYBE one, Ackley).

Aug 02, 2012 08:02 AM
rating: 0
 
jrbdmb

But it is an interesting coincidence that teams with the most pitcher friendly parks (Seattle, San Diego, Oakland) also have a dearth of hitting talent. Just a coincidence, or do Safeco and Petco get into hitters heads and create a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Aug 06, 2012 10:19 AM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

That's a good question, one I don't have an answer to. I like to think that the Padres have some good hitters in Alonso, Headley, etc., and their numbers don't look bad... they're just deflated a bit. If I saw something like that in Mariners hitters -- plus the scouting reports to back it up -- I'd be more optimistic.

Aug 06, 2012 11:49 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Teams try to do three things:
1. Win
2. Provide entertainment
3. Make money
(they vary considerably in how they prioritize those three things)

Dealing Felix now hurts 1 and 2 (and probably 3) for this season and probably next, in the hopes of helping 1 a few years down the road.

Aug 02, 2012 07:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

I think the order for nearly all teams is 1) make money, 2) win, 3) entertain. They're also interested in sustainability.

Aug 02, 2012 07:40 AM
rating: 0
 
David Jackson

If they trade Felix can they keep Larry Bernandez, or would he have to be included in any deal?

Aug 02, 2012 08:30 AM
rating: 1
 
hyprvypr

The Mariner's are going to be a .500 club in 2013 and a strong contender in 2014. Jack Z's been holding the purse strings tighter the last few years to allow for some FA acquisitions and between that and the upcoming, high-level prospects(Hultzen, Paxton, TWalker, Capps, Pryor, Franklin, Zunino), the Mariner's should field a competent offense and continued excellence on defence behind the leagues best pitching.

Then Felix re-signs.

Aug 02, 2012 09:11 AM
rating: -1
 
Bradley Ankrom

Where exactly is this competent offense coming from?

Aug 02, 2012 09:54 AM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

Ackley will get better. Smoak will get better. Montero will get better. Saunders should get better. Nick Franklin will hit more than Ryan. Seager, Carp, Thames and TRobinson have a good shot at getting better. Zunino will be better then Olivo. One or two free agent bats to replace those that don't get better. A great bullpen and Felix, Vargas and two young guns in Hultzen and Walker.

The key is youth. Most of the players listed above are still finding their ways, ala Saunders, and getting the hang of things.

It's not hard to see them being a playoff contender.

Aug 02, 2012 20:27 PM
rating: -1
 
Behemoth

And nothing ever goes wrong in your world?

Aug 03, 2012 02:25 AM
rating: 4
 
hyprvypr

Nope. It's clear too everything goes wrong in your skeptical world. I pity you lol.

Aug 03, 2012 09:16 AM
rating: -1
 
Behemoth

No, you're right. All four of the top prospects will work out. All of the struggling young hitters will solve all their problems. All the best free agents will sign and work out well for Seattle - after all, the other teams can only offer more money and better teams to play for.

Seriously, what's likely to happen is that they get one good pitcher out of Hultzen, Walker and Paxton, and the offence is a bit better because some of the kids work out better. Others turn into complete busts (Smoak looks kind of likely right now). Montero is the only one that's likely to be much above average for me though. I'm not sure that's likely to add up to a contender either in 2013 or 2014, especially with Texas, the Angels and possibly even Oakland in the same division.

Aug 03, 2012 16:31 PM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

You are extremely optimistic on all of those hitters. Smoak is broken, and scouts aren't confident in his ability to serve as a regular. The rest of those guys... crapshoot.

Aug 03, 2012 15:03 PM
rating: 0
 
greensox

Look at these trades - no impact young players are being traded at all, much less a bevy of them.

Heck, I'm not convinced the inefficiency in the markets right now isn't trading C+ prospects for B-B+ major leaguers.

Aug 02, 2012 09:32 AM
rating: 1
 
greensox

I guess I should have said it's efficient to trade C+ prospects for B-B+ major leaguers. Too many of these trades look to me like trading a B- major leaguer for 2 prospects whose ceiling is a B- major leaguer.

Aug 02, 2012 09:33 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

You aren't really taking service time into account. People aren't going to give you three or four top drawer prospects for a rental player that you have to pay full market value for in salary terms.

Aug 03, 2012 02:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

Well, look at what was traded at the deadline. The value of a two-month rental has lessened with the new CBA, so naturally the returns have been less impressive. Greinke, a premier talent, still netted very good prospects in return, however.

Aug 02, 2012 09:57 AM
rating: 0
 
slamcactus

Right or wrong, This fan base would abandon the team in droves if Felix were traded for prospects, no matter how good. So the question becomes: what contender has enough hound impact talent, and ALSO has an impact bat at the big league level that's A) good enough to be the centerpiece in andeal for Felix, and B) expendable enough that the contender will part with him plus at least two other prospects for Felix?

That's a pretty tough combination to find (and I don't think Middlebrooks or Ellsbury counts).

Aug 02, 2012 14:11 PM
rating: 0
 
Dan W.

Oh, come on. For whom, exactly, is the Mariners fan base going to abandon them? There isn't another major league team in a thousand miles. Are they worried about losing southern Oregon to the Giants/A's? Eastern Idaho to the Rockies?

Aug 02, 2012 14:36 PM
rating: -2
 
Shaun P.
(676)

The Mariners have already lost the casual fans. What do you think the rabid fan base will do with no one on the team worth watching or being excited about? Its a perfectly reasonable point. They don't have to abandon the M's for anyone - they can just stop watching baseball/going to game.

What do you think happened in Cleveland? Their attendance was great when they won, sustained for a little while after because of the big names still in town (Thome, CC, then Lee) - but when they lost/traded all their big stars, their attendance totally cratered:

2007 - 21st in MLB attendance
2008 - 22nd (traded CC in July)
2009 - 25th (traded Lee in July)
2010 - 30th
2011 - 24th
2012 - 30th (so far)

For all the love the super-knowledgable fan heaps on Choo, Santana, and Kipnis, it sure hasn't translated to the seats.

Losing plus no stars = horrible attendance. The M's have already gone from 2nd in MLB attendance (2003) to the somewhere between 15th and 20th (2005-2010) thanks to sustained losing. In 2011 they were 23rd, in 2012 26th (so far). Do you think putting more prospects on the field - after the current batch has done so badly - is likely to bump their attendance up? I don't think so, and I think slamcactus made a great point.

Aug 03, 2012 08:04 AM
rating: 2
 
Bradley Ankrom

The recession hit Cleveland harder than most cities in the U.S., and I'm sure that accounts for some of that decline in attendance.

Aug 03, 2012 15:09 PM
rating: 0
 
slamcactus

You're assuming that Seattle fans feel a deep need to watch baseball at all.

Aug 02, 2012 15:06 PM
rating: 3
 
krissbeth

I would think that soak is exhibit A in why you keep the star in hand over two potential stars in the bush leagues.

Aug 02, 2012 19:30 PM
rating: 1
 
Behemoth

And in 2014, you're left with no stars anywhere, and no flags either.

Aug 03, 2012 02:38 AM
rating: 1
 
krissbeth

Smoak. Damn you auto-correct!

Aug 02, 2012 19:34 PM
rating: 1
 
lesmash

If you are actually going to trade Felix Hernandez, I think you have to - HAVE TO - get 2 huge bats, and at least one needs to be in the majors today. So, using K.C. as the example, we are talking something like Eric Hosmer and Will Myers. Anything less, you keep Felix.

Aug 05, 2012 19:54 PM
rating: 0
 
coovertc

I think this is one of those ideas that makes sense in theory, but wouldn't have worked in practice. At this point, the Mariners really can't afford to trade Felix for a bunch of A ball guys. They have to get guys ready to contribute now. The fan base is not ready to accept going backward, and Jack Z might lose his job if they do. I don't see any team, with the possible exception of Texas, who could give the Mariners players like this. And there is now way Seattle trades Felix in the division with two years left on his contract. If they decide they need to trade him, the upcoming off season is the logical time to do it.

Aug 05, 2012 22:16 PM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

I think that if Zduriencik put word out there that he was willing to deal Felix Hernandez, and that he needed 2-3 young, major-league ready pieces to make it happen, it would happen. It may involve more than one other team, but it would happen.

Aug 06, 2012 11:52 AM
rating: 0
 
Schere

o rly? You're GM #2...you're going to give up a top prospect and not get the best player (Hernandez) in the deal?

Aug 06, 2012 13:19 PM
rating: 0
 
Bradley Ankrom

Other teams have other needs. I don't want to get into trade speculation, but consider that a third team could be interested in lower-level, higher-upside talent in exchange for its upper-level player. It happens.

Aug 06, 2012 13:34 PM
rating: 0
 
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