The revival of King Felix, who was 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA and his lowest innings total since 2007, might be the most important element in determining whether the Mariners can break their 15-year playoff drought.
The Mariners attacked a myth Thursday at their annual pre-spring training luncheon at Safeco Field.
Their message was this: The purported demise of Felix Hernandez has been greatly exaggerated, and that notion persists largely in comparison with his own brilliant body of work. Taken in isolation, they believe, Hernandez still is a high-quality major-league pitcher — and poised to regain his ace status in 2017 after a winter dedicated to getting himself in better shape.
“You have to keep in mind how high the bar is for Felix,’’ manager Scott Servais said. “Felix Hernandez is still really good. He’s going to be the anchor of that rotation. He will start opening day. He’s going to be our guy.
“It may not be at the level he was always at in the past, but that level was unbelievable.”
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Their optimism is what you’d expect at this sort of event, where we heard gushing about the Mariners’ newfound speed and athleticism, their improved outfield defense and their augmented pitching depth.
All that might be true, but the revival of King Felix might be the single-most important element in determining whether the Mariners finally can break their 15-year playoff drought. So where does it stand?
First of all, reports on Hernandez’s dedication to improved conditioning are highly encouraging. He has been working out in Miami with a personal trainer named “Iron Glenn,” who also works with teammates Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano. You might have seen some of the Instagram videos showing Hernandez’s arduous workouts with Iron Glenn, designed to primarily strengthen his legs and core and improve his durability.
“Felix is getting after it,” Servais said.
After last season, in which Hernandez missed seven weeks because of a calf injury and was not nearly as dominant as he was during his 10-year prime, Servais challenged him to show more urgency in his offseason preparation. After texting with Hernandez throughout the winter and meeting Iron Glenn in person recently in the Dominican Republic, Servais is confident Hernandez is taking that mission to heart.
“He’s in a good spot,” he said.
It’s all word of mouth right now, mind you. We didn’t get the grand unveiling that occurred at this same luncheon in 2007, when there was great concern about Hernandez’s weight and preparation after a season in which he had a 3.91 ERA and looked visibly out of shape. I’ll never forget the dropped jaws when Hernandez walked into the auditorium and displayed his new, sleek physique, the result of his dedication to training.
Hernandez was a mere 20 years old, and it wasn’t long before his vast promise translated into superb performance. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 2010, finished second twice and landed in the top 10 three other times.
But last year Hernandez failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since 2007 (he was at 1531/3), had his highest ERA (3.82) since ’07 and had the highest walk rate of his career (3.8 per nine innings), all accompanied by a drop in velocity.
Yet the Mariners want to put all that in perspective. General manager Jerry Dipoto pointed out that Hernandez’s secondary stuff still ranks among the best in baseball, and he still has the ability to create soft contact. With improved health, they think he’ll still be an innings-eater, and with a renewed drive he just might re-ascend at least partially back onto his throne.
“My impression of the way the offseason has gone with Felix,” Dipoto said, “is that the fact he’s been questioned so heavily publicly has acted as a motivating tool for him to get himself ready to pitch and show the world he’s still Felix Hernandez.”
The question is, what exactly does that mean now that Hernandez will turn 31 during the first week of the season with nearly 2,500 innings of wear and tear on his arm? That’s the prevailing Mariner mystery of 2017.
The great unveiling, which will take place at spring training when Hernandez shows up in Peoria, Ariz., will tell part of the story.
The Mariners believe they have more pitching depth to sustain whatever struggles might exist for Hernandez during the season. They’d love to see the sort of revival Justin Verlander had last year after being similarly written off.
“I’ve had the chance in my lifetime to play with great players, and manage great players from the position I’m in today — All-Stars, Hall of Famers,” Dipoto said. “The barometer by which Felix Hernandez will be measured, it’s unsustainable for anybody.
“This guy has been one of the best pitchers of a generation, and they don’t remain that way forever. So there’s going to be some … fall-off, and we are in the age of social media, where when there’s first a wobble, everyone wants the sky to fall.”
Yet the notion that Felix Hernandez as we knew him has collapsed, irretrievably — the Mariners believe that’s a myth that will be shattered in 2017. Actually, the fate of their season might depend on it.