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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.

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