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August 2, 2012
The Mariners' Missed Opportunity
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
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.
Why he should have been traded
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
Two possible reasons why: