The erstwhile ace spoke for the first time since being passed over as the opening-day starter, ending his streak of 10 consecutive opening-day starts.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The outing and its results, as ugly as they were, were unimportant as so many situations in spring-training baseball. The seven runs allowed, including five in the marathon fourth inning where he was unable to record a single out, won’t mean much more than a nagging reminder of what has been a perpetual issue the past two seasons and the likely precursor of more to come in 2019.
Felix Hernandez isn’t fighting to make the Mariners’ rotation based on his spring-training performance. His place in it is a given due toten his decorated career in Seattle and, more importantly, the $27 million he’s owed for this season.
But his status in the rotation and the organization has never been lower.
It’s a realization that’s setting in. His stubborn belief in his greatness and his lack of self-awareness aren’t uncommon among great athletes. They are often the last to realize a decline that others can easily identify.
Two days ago, he was informed he wouldn’t make the opening-day start for the first time since 2008, and that he wouldn’t pitch in the Mariners’ home-opening series against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. He’s been slotted into the No. 5 spot, and the to-date plan is for him to start April 1 against the Angels at T-Mobile Park. His team will have played in six regular-season games before he starts his first.
As he sat at his locker, Hernandez, still clad in his uniform, knew his situation would be addressed, notably the end of 10-season streak of starting on opening day. After dispensing with a few comments about his outing and a blown called-strike call that seemed to ignite his fourth-inning trouble — “Yeah, I was pissed about the strike zone, but I fell behind a few hitters.” — the questions came.
Asked if he was upset about the decision made by manager Scott Servais to start Marco Gonzales on opening day, Hernandez looked up and nodded, replying: “Yeah.”
When he didn’t expound, he was asked about his reaction to the decision. Hernandez gave a small chuckle and replied, “I’ve got no comment to that.”
It’s a decision he said he knew was going to happen though he’d given no signs of foreseeing that fate this spring. Perhaps in this last week as the Mariners slotted out their rotation, he projected the days and outings and understood that he wouldn’t throw the first pitch of a Mariners’ season — a rite he should have held continuously since 2007 if not for the uninformed decision by manager John McLaren to start the enigmatic and unenthusiastic Erik Bedard on opening day in 2008. It’s a snub that left Hernandez fuming a month into the season, feeling he’d been disrespected by the organization.
It’s a feeling that seems to have returned in what is expected to be his final season in Seattle. He’s a free agent after the season and neither side seems interested in continuing the relationship, regardless of the circumstances.
If Hernandez felt like losing the opening-day start was a punch to the gut, the decision to have him pitch as the No. 5 starter might feel like a backhand to the cheek.
With the Mariners having three left-handed pitchers in the rotation, they needed to slot somebody between Hernandez and Mike Leake to break them up. Servais put Leake in the No. 3 spot behind Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi with Wade LeBlanc going fourth.
Servais said it was a way for Hernandez to have more time to get ready for his first regular-season start. Hernandez didn’t seem grateful about it.
“What do you want me to say?” he said.
“I don’t know,” came the reply.
“Exactly,” he said. “I don’t know either.”
That sentiment could also describe what the Mariners expect to get from their erstwhile ace this season.
“He’s a starting pitcher in the big leagues, and we’ll give him the ball every fifth day,” Servais said.
But for how long?
The situation seems untenable. You have a star pitcher who is no longer producing as a star pitcher but still expects to be treated with that elevated status. You have a manager and general manager that have never experienced the star pitcher’s best moments and have only an appreciation of what he’s meant to the organization, but no real bond. Their relationship is peripheral at best, employee and superiors existing with an icy, detached acknowledgment of the other.
And there is the Mariners’ new direction, labeled a “step back,” which focuses on a growing group of younger, cheaper players who will serve as the nucleus for a postseason push in 2021 and beyond. Hernandez is neither young nor cheap. For many years, he was the entire nucleus as the organization tripped over itself and failed to bring in viable talent to surround him.
Hernandez never embraced being the leader in the way the organization had hoped for as he blossomed into stardom. Only a few starting pitchers can elevate to that level. But he’s a been willing and generous teammate.
But could this current acrimony lead to disruption? Hernandez has never been malicious, but he also hasn’t always been mature. Could he become a malcontent? It’s certainly something that will be monitored. At what point is his presence a diminished value? The Mariners won’t hinder the progress of top prospect Justus Sheffield for the sake of loyalty and nostalgia. Well, at least not this time.
His $27 million salary is a sunken cost. The Mariners seem destined to pay it in full. Even if he somehow performs above expectations and becomes of value to another team, it’s a dollar figure that no GM would assume — or even half of it. But if a change-of-scenery trade presented itself, the Mariners would be interested for a minimal return.
And if Hernandez continues to struggle with wandering command, run-filled innings and shortened starts, the cost of parting ways would be the same as burying him in the bullpen.
There is no “if” pertaining to the end of the relationship between the Mariners and Hernandez. It’s now just when.