In years past, Felix Hernandez was the given opening day starter. But manager Scott Servais said he hasn't determined his opening day starter. Could it be James Paxton instead?

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PEORIA, Ariz. —  It seems weird that it’s now a question. In past years, you expected the answer without really having to ask it:

“Yes, Felix Hernandez will be the Mariners’ starting pitcher on opening day.”

It’s something that manager Scott Servais basically confirmed early in each of his previous two spring trainings. It was simple. Pencil in Hernandez as your No. 1 starter and fill out the rest of your rotation. But asked on Monday who is opening day starter would be this year, Servais respond with Hernandez’s name immediately. In fact, he didn’t give a name.

“We’ll have one,” Servais deadpanned while playing coy. “How’s everything else going?”

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Are you not ready to announce it?

“No, we’ll wait and see how the spring plays out,” he said.

So, this is somewhat new and surprising. Regardless of his struggles the last two seasons, Hernandez has been the face of the Mariners’ franchise long before the current regime had taken control. He has been the Mariners most visible star through many losing seasons that ended on the final day of the regular season and never later. He’s always been rewarded for that loyalty and success with the opening day honor.

Hernandez has started on opening day 10 out of the last 11 seasons (2007, 2009-17). He is just the ninth pitcher in Major League Baseball history to make 10 opening day starts with one team. The other eight:

  • Steve Carlton, Phillies
  • Bob Gibson, Cardinals
  • Walter Johnson, Senators
  • Juan Marichal, Giants
  • Jack Morris, Tigers
  • Robin Roberts, Phillies
  • Tom Seaver, Mets
  • Warren Spahn, Braves

Hernandez would’ve started 11 straight opening days if not for the colossally stupid and short-sighted decision by former manager John McLaren to choose then-recently acquired Erik Bedard as the opening day starter for the 2008 season. Bedard loathed having the burden or responsibility while Hernandez felt slighted by a manager that clearly couldn’t read the pulse of his clubhouse. Even worse, McLaren never told either pitcher about the decision before telling the media, who then rushed to each for reactions.

The circumstances are a little different now. Servais certainly wouldn’t make McLaren’s mistake of not informing the affected pitchers first before announcing it. He did clarify the process of when he planned to announce his opening day starter.

“We’ll see how things are progressing throughout the spring,” Servais said. “Obviously it gets to a point in the spring where you have to make a decision and line up your rotation the right way. But we certainly have guys that are capable of doing that.”

It basically comes down to Hernandez or James Paxton starting on opening day. As of now, based on their scheduled Cactus League starts, both pitchers are lined up with the possibility of starting that first game against the Cleveland Indians on March 29 at Safeco Field.

“We saw what Pax did last year, kind of stepping forward for a nice stretch of time and really leading our staff,” Servais said. “Obviously everybody knows what Felix has done here through the course of his career.  Mike Leake had a nice debut for us last year. We have plenty of guys that can go ahead and take that ball.”

To be fair, barring an injury to either Paxton or Hernandez or both, or some new, secret and strategic plan based on planned starts, rest days and off days in the first month devised by the coaching staff, Leake isn’t going to be starting on opening day. He just isn’t.

So that leaves Hernandez and Paxton. Does it speak to how far Paxton has risen in the eyes of the organization and front office or how far Hernandez has regressed for this to be under consideration?

For extended stretches last season, Paxton looked like a star, posting a 12-5 record with a 2.98 ERA in 24 starts. His success was interrupted by a pair of trips to the disabled list with a forearm strain and a pectoral strain. When he was healthy, he wasn’t just the Mariners’ best pitcher, but one of the best in the American League.

Meanwhile, Hernandez slogged through one of his least productive seasons of his career. He posted a 6-5 record with a 4.36 ERA in 16 starts. He had two extended stints on the disabled list for bursitis in his throwing shoulder. Even when he was healthy, his performances were inconsistent as mechanical and command issues plagued him.

So what does each pitcher think?

Well, Paxton, who seemed perplexed to even be asked about the situation, was diplomatic and deferential.

“I’m going to take the ball whenever they give it me,” he said. “I’d be honored to get that opportunity. It’s a very special thing. But at the same time, I’m just happy taking the mound whenever they give me the ball.  It is a big deal, but it’s not. I would not be offended at all if I didn’t.”

Hernandez seemed just as surprised about being asked about starting on opening day. He hasn’t had a reason to think he wouldn’t be the opening day starter for quite a while. Does starting on opening day matter?

“Yeah, sure it matters,” he said. “I can’t imagine not doing it.”

He paused and then added: “But I just want to pitch.”

To Paxton, the concept of Hernandez not starting on opening day is foreign to him. He was drafted in 2010 and since he’s been with the organization, Hernandez has always been the opening day starter.

“He’s done it for what the last nine years in a row,” Paxton said. “As long as he comes into camp and he feels good and ready to go, then let’s make it it 10 in a row for him.”

Is this some sort of weird motivational ploy by Servais and the front office to keep Hernandez hungry and focused during spring training? Or is there really a shift to Paxton’s rising star from Hernandez’s fading King Felix days? For the first time in a while, the question apparently needs to be asked again in the next week or two.

And only Servais knows the answer.