Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   TACOMA, WA. — It’s a $27 million question that, as odd as it might seem, should have very little to do with that $27 million.

   The Mariners must decide, in fairly short order, whether long-time ace and franchise icon Felix Hernandez has a future with the club. This assumes that Felix wants to stick around for the final year of his contract.

   That might not be a sure thing.

   Hernandez is, not without cause, an immensely proud man who struggled this season to handle his increasing slide toward mediocrity. He is barely a shell of his once-dominant self at 8-13 with a 5.46 ERA.

   Success is now defined as keeping the game competitive through five innings. He has one quality start since June 25 and, fittingly from a historical perspective, the Mariners lost that game.

   It’s sad to watch a great player decline. I’m old enough to recall Willie Mays looking lost in the outfield while playing for the New York Mets at the end of his career. 

   Mariners fans got a glimpse of something similar earlier this season in watching a once-peerless Ichiro Suzuki struggle in the field and at the plate before he shifted to his odd non-playing but non-retirement role.

   As for Hernandez, he recently admitted, in a remarkable story by Scott Miller, that he considered quitting in early August when pulled from the Mariners’ rotation for the first time in his career after a wretched start against the Rangers.

   Hernandez chose to stick it out and soon thereafter returned to the rotation when injuries sidelined other starters. He made four more nondescript starts before a hamstring injury surfaced in a Sept. 8 start against the New York Yankees.

   It seems likely, at this point, that Hernandez will be sufficiently recovered to make one start (perhaps two) next week when the Mariners close out the season with a seven-game homestand against Oakland and Texas.

   Then what?

   That’s anybody’s guess, but it’s possible that next week might be your last chance to see Felix Hernandez in a Mariners uniform.

   Yes, he remains under contract for next season — and for a club-record $27 million — but, as astounding as it sounds, that should have little impact on the Mariners’ looming decision.

   That $27 million is a sunk cost. The Mariners are on the hook for every cent of it regardless of whether they retain or release Hernandez unless they can recoup a portion of those dollars in a trade. (More on that in a minute.)

   Once you strip away the finances — i.e., accept the $27 million as a sunk cost — this becomes a baseball decision.

   Specifically, do the Mariners believe Felix Hernandez can help them win in 2019? More specifically, is he a better option than his likely replacement — even if that replacement isn’t yet known?

   Going by the numbers, it’s hard to build a case to retain Hernandez, who has a minus-1.2 wins above replacement (WAR) rating this season.

   By definition, that is 1.2 wins worse than an average replacement-level pitcher, which WAR describes as a typical Triple-A starter or a starter who tends to bounce between Triple-A and the majors.

   This is not a one-year decline, either.

   Hernandez’s WAR rating over the last three seasons is a mere plus-1.0. It’s hard to argue the Mariners can’t do better because, simply, it would be hard to do any worse. 

   For those who don’t like using WAR for evaluation purposes, fine. Choose whatever numbers you want. Let me know if you find any that point to a different conclusion.

   This is not to say that Hernandez’s $27 million guarantee won’t have an impact on the club’s payroll.

   Certainly, it will.

   When general manager Jerry Dipoto gets a payroll budget figure from ownership, whatever it is, that $27 million will count against the total. It’s $27 million that can’t be spent on other players. 

   But, again, Hernandez’s salary will count against the budgeted payroll regardless of whether or not he is part of the club — unless the Mariners can, somehow, swing a deal in which another club agrees to pay a portion of that guaranteed deal.

   (As to the likelihood of such a deal, I put that question to two front-office officials from other clubs. One simply said: “No.” The other laughed and asked if I was serious. It’s a small sample size, but it’s not encouraging.)

   It’s possible, certainly, that Mariners officials, after crunching their own numbers, will conclude there’s a reasonable chance that Hernandez can arrest his decline and be a viable component in next year’s rotation.

   Hernandez will be on a short leash and, like much of this season, his every outing will be parsed on a pitch-by-pitch basis for telltale signs. It could quickly turn into a distraction — again, like it was for much of this season.

   Still, if the Mariners think he has something left in the tank, great. Bring him back. Felix still deserves the benefit of any doubt — if there is doubt. Plus, great players often show the ability to adjust later in their careers as their skills decline.

   Hernandez hasn’t yet shown he can (or is willing to) make those sort of adjustments but, undeniably, he’s been a great player and, at this point, he should realize it’s now or never. 

   Maybe he deserves one more chance. 

   But if club officials conclude Hernandez’s slide is irreversible — or even that better options exist or can be acquired — they should release him as soon as is reasonably possible after the season ends.

   Doing that won’t be easy as writing that.

   Felix Hernandez is the greatest pitcher in Mariners history. Parting with such a player is no small thing. When the end comes, whenever it comes, club officials need to handle it with the utmost possible dignity.

   The point, though, is that day is coming. Perhaps soon. Perhaps a little farther down the road. That’s the decision the Mariners are facing as they enter the offseason. It will be interesting to see how things play out.