Perhaps last season's demotion to the bullpen was enough to help the former ace — the once-mighty King Felix — realize he has two options: improve or be shown the door.
PEORIA, Ariz. — In years past, when his success was expected, Felix Hernandez’s hairstyle — a mass of near-perfect braids accentuated by shaved skin below the crown of his head — would have been a significant topic of conversation.
Back in those more youthful and playful days, his ever-changing hairstyle provided an anecdote to describe the character that was King Felix. He’d smile and say “my wife likes it,” and questions would then turn to his hopes for another strong season and the elusive chance to pitch in the postseason that, at that time, still seemed like a possibility.
But on Tuesday afternoon, when the Mariners’ one-time ace met with the media, there was no mention of this “unique” hairstyle that was mercifully hidden by a headband.
That line of questioning probably would have been more enjoyable for Hernandez instead of Tuesday’s reality of shrugging off questions he knows he can’t really answer.
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But this is the place he pitched himself into — uncertainty and mediocrity.
And while he can still flash that impish grin and speak of his potential for success — “I just have to make good pitches, and that’s it,” he said Tuesday — it’s impossible not to wonder whether he truly believes in what he’s saying. Are his answers born out of the stubbornness that helped make him great, or does he lack the self-awareness to understand how far he’s fallen in the last three seasons?
This is a player coming off the worst season of his big league career. He posted an 8-14 record with a 5.55 ERA in 28 starts and one relief appearance. Yes, he pitched so poorly in July and August — five starts, five losses and a 8.37 ERA — that he was removed from the starting rotation. His banishment to the bullpen left him furious with manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto. However, Hernandez’s exile was short-lived because an injury to James Paxton forced him back into the rotation.
After a miserable season, Hernandez talked Tuesday about taking time in his offseason to reflect on how it all went so wrong and how it might be corrected. But he offered no insight into what he found or even acknowledged that he made an attempt to do so.
“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.”
In the final days of 2018, there was obvious frustration in his performance, his circumstances and the Mariners’ fade into irrelevance. He admitted as much. But he pushed aside any narrative that last season’s failures might provide motivation.
“I’m done about that,” he said. “Like I said, it’s different now. It’s a new year. I came here ready to go. So we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Six years ago almost to the day — Feb. 13, 2013 — Hernandez sat at the dais of then-Safeco Field having just signed a 7-year, $175 million contract to keep him in a Mariners uniform through his prime pitching years. After being greeted by Mariners employees cheering and waving signs in the halls as he walked with his wife to the news conference, he gushed tears of joy, promising everything Mariners fans wanted to hear from him.
“To the people in Seattle that trust me and believe in me, I’ll say this: I’m not going to disappoint anybody. I’m going to do my best,” he said that day. “This Seattle Mariners team is going to be on top. Believe me … I will do my best, or more than my best, to get to the point of the playoffs.”
Now, he’s in the final year of that contract and is owed $27 million. The Mariners have not made the playoffs in that time. He couldn’t stop a streak that started in 2001 and that will almost certainly continue given the Mariners’ offseason plan of taking a step back in 2019. In 14 years, Hernandez played on three teams that had even a slight chance of making the postseason, which is more of an indictment of ownership and leadership than of Hernandez.
During this offseason, Hernandez saw his catcher, Mike Zunino; his rotation-mate, James Paxton; and his friends and fellow All-Stars Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Jean Segura and Edwin Diaz all traded. He knows this team isn’t built to compete for a postseason spot.
“It was a crazy offseason,” he said. “I wasn’t watching that. When I’m home, I’m not trying to pay attention to any baseball or any moves that Jerry did. I’m with my family. I know it’s hard because I’ve been with those guys for a long time. But it’s baseball. It’s a business.”
That business side of the game is apparent for him this season.
Barring a drastic change in his performance or in the thinking from both parties involved, this will be his final year with the Mariners. The relationship’s end was always expected. But this separation has been growing in recent years, given a leadership change and Hernandez’s refusal to change his technique to help in the fight against the always-victorious Father Time.
Hernandez has no plans to retire. He knows his contract is up and his time with the Mariners will likely end. But he refuses to believe he can’t still play the game that carried him out of a poverty-riddled area in Venezuela and catapulted him into stardom while providing him life-changing money.
“I’m not done,” he said defiantly. “I’m not done yet. It motivates me every year to come here and be my best. I know it’s my final year. But I don’t think I’m done.”
He will have a chance to prove it. Given the Mariners’ focus on the future, his place in the rotation is secure. Dipoto shot down sports talk radio and social media discussion of converting Hernandez to a closer or even a reliever in 2019. Hernandez has a spot in the rotation, but he’s no longer counted upon to be the ace. In past years, Servais would speak hopefully of a bounce back from the previous season’s struggles. Now going into his fourth year as Mariners manager and having never really seen Hernandez pitch to the level of his reputation, Servais does not show even tempered optimism.
“Obviously, Felix is going to get an opportunity to be in our rotation,” Servais said. “It’s a big year for him. He’s struggled the last few years. We’ll see what it brings. I talked with him a little bit yesterday. Felix is a competitor. He’s a very proud player like many veteran players are. He wants to get back to doing his thing and we are going to let him try. We are going to give him the ball and see if he can run with it.”
If he can’t, there could be a hard decision for the Mariners to make midseason. Can you really continue to roll out a struggling Hernandez every fifth day if prospects Justus Sheffield or Erik Swanson are ready to assume a role in the rotation? Imagine the idea of the Mariners releasing Hernandez in the middle of the season. It seemed implausible even two seasons ago. But now? Even Hernandez admitted he can’t pitch like last season and expect to remain. Perhaps the brief stint to the bullpen was a realization. It has to be better.
“It’s gotta be,” he said. “If I don’t, I’m out.”
A rare acknowledgment of his own baseball mortality, but those types of moments vanish quickly from Hernandez, replaced by bravado and self-assurance — real or feigned.
“I said, I’m not done,” he said. “I’m 33 years old. What do you mean I’m done? I still think I can do a lot of things good for baseball.”