Hernandez is beginning the season as the No. 5 starter on a Mariners team Fangraphs is projecting to win 75 games. If I'm Felix, I'm using my (likely) last season in Seattle to be the best teammate possible.
If there was a button that would time-travel Felix Hernandez to Sept. 30 of this year, he would have pressed it in an instant. That’s the day after the Mariners’ regular season ends, and for Felix, the first day of guaranteed relief.
Hernandez is a shadow of a shell of his former self and may have less talent around him than he has had in his MLB career. This is going to be bad.
But it’s up to Felix not to make it worse.
The headline out of Peoria, Ariz., on Sunday was Hernandez’s discontent over M’s manager Scott Servais naming Marco Gonzales as the team’s opening-day starter. The decision marks the first time Felix won’t take the mound on Day 1 since 2008.
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Asked if he was upset about Servais’ call, Hernandez simply looked up and said, “Yeah.” And when asked to elaborate, he replied, “I’ve got no comment to that.”
These weren’t scorched-earth reactions that will drive an immediate wedge between Hernandez, his teammates and Servais. Regardless of the $27 million Felix will receive in this final year of his contract, everyone understands that regression still hurts.
In the past five years, Hernandez’s ERA has ballooned from 2.14, to 3.53, to 3.82, to 4.36 to 5.55. Throw in the seven earned runs he allowed in three innings Sunday, and a 2019 resurgence seems closer to impossible than it does improbable.
So Servais, Gonzales and others likely sympathize with Hernandez’s hurt. He has a lot to be upset about.
He doesn’t, however, have anything to complain about.
I predict we learn more about Felix’s character this season than in any of his previous 14. Even in the free fall that was 2018, he was still the opening-day starter and spent minimal time out of the rotation.
But now he’s beginning the season as the No. 5 starter on a team Fangraphs is projecting to win 75 games. He’s all but guaranteed to extend his career-long playoff drought on the only major-league team he has played for.
When you’ve been the anointed one for most of your career, a fall from grace can easily be accompanied by a lack of grace. So, Felix, temping as it may be — resist the urge to sulk.
Richard Sherman’s accomplishments will always make him one of Seattle’s more appreciated athletes, but his antics over his final couple seasons with the Seahawks docked him some points on the love scale. Earl Thomas was the most talented member of the Legion of Boom, but between him asking Cowboys coach Jason Garrett to “come get me,” and then flipping off his own sideline in his final game as a Seahawk, his once-pristine legacy will be permanently tainted.
Hernandez doesn’t seem to possess the same personality traits as the aforementioned Seahawks. He doesn’t pop off. He doesn’t complain of “disrespect.” He has been ejected from only one regular-season game, and that was on his way to the dugout after being pulled. But he is also about to undergo a unique experience for him.
Any frustration Hernandez may have felt last year was tempered by the fact that, for most of the season, the M’s were in the playoff hunt. Prolonged resentment about losing his place in the rotation would have been interpreted as selfish given the circumstances.
But postseason hopes won’t be in play this year. And as my colleague, Ryan Divish, pointed out, Servais and Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto have not experienced a dominant Felix in their three seasons in Seattle. This isn’t like Gregg Popovich yanking Tony Parker from the starting lineup after four titles together. This has the potential to get tense.
But if I’m Felix, I’m using my (likely) last season in Seattle to be the best teammate possible. I’d do my best to transition from pitching master to pitching mentor, all the while competing to get back to the top.
It’s hard to smile when you’re angry, hard to be enthusiastic when you’re struggling, hard to stay poised when you’re unraveling. But anyone who manages to keep it together is always happy that he did.
Hernandez isn’t going to go out on top in Seattle, and it’s unlikely he’ll go out with the proverbial bang. But he can go out with class.
And given the circumstances he’ll be facing, that would be an accomplishment.