This is where Mariners fans should probably avert their eyes, because — with all due respect to their team's general manager — King Felix has to be traded.
The idea seems preposterous on the surface, and not only because Hernandez is a former Cy Young winner, in his prime and under team control until 2014. He is, along with the indomitable Ichiro Suzuki, the face of that franchise. If you are not from the Pacific Northwest and neither a hardcore baseball fan nor a fantasy baseball player, you likely have no clue who is on that team other than Ichiro and Hernandez.
Seattle fans, unsurprisingly, are obsessed with those two. Hernandez has his own cheering section when he pitches, dubbed "King's Court," and he inspired something of a cult to spring up around his alter ego, Larry Bernandez (you owe it to yourself to watch this ad if you have never heard of Larry Bernandez before).
Ichiro, however, is hitting only .259 this year after a .272 campaign in 2011 — alarmingly low for a player whose career average is .323 and had never hit below .303 previously. It's almost impossible to comprehend, but he is becoming a near liability at the plate — and one due $17 million in 2013, at that. He likely will not be with the club much longer, at least in an everyday capacity.
So that's one franchise cornerstone on the rapid decline and soon on the way out. To trade Hernandez in the midst of his theoretical best years, then, would seem to be effectively waving the white flag on any kind of goodwill with the fanbase — not to mention any hope of having a semblance of on-the-field success.
But the Mariners cannot let emotions get in the way of the cold, hard facts.
As it stands now, even with Ichiro and Hernandez on the team, Seattle is drawing the fifth-lowest amount of fans in the majors and is filling Safeco Field to the second-lowest percentage of its capacity in the majors.
Even when Hernandez pitches, attendance does not really go up. While the overall average attendance at Safeco is 22,285, the average when Hernandez pitches is 25,634. However, there are two notable outliers in the form of 40,000-plus fans coming on the home opener and Father's Day — take those out, and the average attendance to see Hernandez pitch drops to a below-average 21,191. Thus, the impact of trading him would likely be negligible from a ticketing standpoint.
What's also important to consider is that when Hernandez hits the open market as a free agent after the 2014 season, he will still only be 28 years old. Granted, he will likely have put close to 2,000 innings on his right arm by that time, but we are talking about a guy who, since his first full season in 2006, has never made less than 30 starts and has never thrown less than 190 innings. He is a workhorse in the truest sense of the word, and he will command a massive contract when his time comes.
The Mariners, with a middling payroll of $82 million, could likely not bring themselves to shell out the $20-plus million per year it will take to keep the King in the Emerald City. So they might as well get a substantial haul for him now while they still can.
Because the truth is this — the Mariners are light years away from being able to compete in that division. The Rangers and Angels look to be the West's version of the Red Sox and Yankees for the foreseeable future, and the Mariners, at 39-53 and 8 1/2 games out of any postseason spot entering Wednesday, have a ridiculously young and overmatched team.
Their offense is terrible — there's no other way to put it. The team's batting average is a stunningly awful .231, they've only managed to score 364 runs, and the team OPS is far and away the worst in the majors at .657.
Jesus Montero has somehow managed to make the current conversation into who won the Mariners-Yankees trade involving him and the injured Michael Pineda into a debate, while highly touted second baseman Dustin Ackley has taken several leaps backward in his sophomore season.
But the cavalry, seemingly, is on the way in the form of three prized pitching prospects. Danny Hultzen (ranked as the No. 21 prospect in baseball by Baseball America) Taijuan Walker (No. 20) and James Paxton (No. 52) will all likely enter the big leagues by the end of 2013 to massive expectations. And that's what makes Hernandez, incredibly, expendable.
The Mariners are not going anywhere within the next two to three years. If they can flip King Felix for a proven hitter and some other prospects, they will be better off down the road. Even in Hernandez's unquestionably best season — 2010, when his ERA was a tiny 2.27 and he won the Cy Young — he still only won 13 games. When your ace has the season of his career and still only wins one more game than he loses thanks to a league-worst amount of run support, you know that having a pitcher like that is a tad superfluous.
Pitching may win championships, but a team can't win, period, unless it scores runs. With a trio of potential All-Star pitchers ascending through the minor leagues, the Mariners need to focus on improving their offense. As their young position players get older, this may happen — but in order to make sure it does, they need to bite the bullet and trade their best player for as much as they can. He's not going to do them much good in the meantime if they don't.