WHAT SHOULD THE MARINERS DO WITH FELIX?

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — It’s no stretch to say the Mariners, as they enter this week, face not only a defining point in their season but also a seminal moment in franchise history.

   What do they do with Felix Hernandez?

   The once-preeminent King is now, clearly, the weakest link in the rotation for a club locked in a tight wild-card race and seeking to end a 16-year postseason drought.

   Hernandez, still just 32, is 8-9 with a 5.58 ERA in 21 starts and, worse still, is trending downward: Just two quality starts in his last eight outings. He gave up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings in Saturday’s 11-5 loss to the Angels in Anaheim.

   This can’t go on much (any?) longer.

   “I mean, it’s embarrassing,” Hernandez acknowledged after Saturday’s shellacking. “If we’re going to make the playoffs, I have to do something better than this. That’s all I got to say.”

   Manager Scott Servais, when asked Saturday about Hernandez’s status in the rotation, offered an ominous: “We’ve got to wait and see.” A day later, Servais said he planned to discuss the matter Monday with general manager Jerry Dipoto.

   At minimum, it appears the Mariners are open to the possibility of pulling Hernandez from their rotation prior to his next scheduled turn Thursday against Toronto at Safeco Field.

   *****

   I posted a twitter poll early Sunday regarding what the Mariners should do with Hernandez. There were three choices: Pull him from the rotation. Give him a little longer. Just let him pitch.

   The poll produced more than 800 responses in the first three hours, and more than two-thirds of those who participated believe the Mariners should pull Hernandez from their rotation.

   For what it’s worth, if I were voting, I’d say he deserves a little more time, but I understand why many disagree.

   *****

   Pulling Hernandez from the rotation would be no small thing.

   We’re talking about a genuine star who became a franchise icon after foregoing the opportunity to test free agency when he agreed to a seven-year extension prior to the 2013 season.

   The Mariners, at the time, had averaged a 68-94 record over the three previous seasons. By signing, Hernandez was buying into a long-term plan at a time when there was little reason to do so.

   Yes, he got a megadeal to remain in Seattle — a guaranteed $175 million over seven years — but there’s little doubt that Hernandez could have matched (and likely exceeded) it by becoming a free agent.

   Felix has always said he’s never wanted to play, or win, anywhere else. His actions back up that declaration. 

   Maybe none of that matters at this point. Major League Baseball, as we are often reminded, is a business. And that business, increasingly, operates through the bloodless abacus of statistical analysis.

   Given that, it’s hard at this point to build any analytical case that supports keeping Hernandez in the rotation. Even so, that’s only part of the decision. Equally important is who replaces him?

   The likeliest candidate, as I write this, is right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who is nearing a return to active duty in his season-long recovery from a strained latissimus dorsi muscle.

   Ramirez had a 3.92 ERA last season in 11 starts after being reacquired from Tampa Bay and projected as part of the rotation before his injury surfaced in spring training. Right now, that would be an upgrade over Felix.

   I say as I write this because the Mariners could acquire a starting pitcher prior to the non-waiver trade deadline, which is 1 p.m. Tuesday. (Or afterward. Trades are more difficult, but still possible, after the deadline.)

   *****

   This might all be premature.

   Hernandez could get a reprieve from Dipoto and Servais and respond by pitching well Thursday against Toronto. (Again, I’d favor giving him another start or two.) But let’s say, for the sake of argument, the Mariners pull him from their rotation.

   What happens then?

   A quick run through social media suggests many fans believe the club should put Hernandez in the bullpen as a middle or long reliever.

   That’s a viable short-term option if — and only if — the Mariners believe (and Hernandez concurs) that a fix is possible through an adjusted repertoire, an altered delivery or something of that sort.

   The best-case scenario in that plan is Hernandez goes to the bullpen and pitches occasionally in low-leverage situations. His work leads to a fix, and he returns, rejuvenated, to the rotation at some point later in the season.

   A less-optimal (but still acceptable) result is the overhaul continues for the remainder of the season. Hernandez then gets the chance next spring to pitch his way back into the rotation.

   Here’s the key though: If the Mariners get to the point where they pull Hernandez from their rotation — a Rubicon moment — he must buy into any subsequent move to the bullpen and accept the need for an adjusted approach.

   If not…well, this won’t end well.