Defending his star pitcher, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said Thursday that Felix Hernandez still can be the ace despite a 2016 season of decline stemming largely from a calf injury, which meant his arm health and pitching mechanics were no issue in 2016.
“The demise of Felix Hernandez is being grossly exaggerated,” he said at the Mariners annual spring training luncheon. “He’s still a very good major league pitcher. He had a lower body injury last year. There’s nothing wrong with his arm. Felix Hernandez 2016 looks very similar to 2015 minus the innings he sat on the disabled list.
“Felix still has dynamic secondary stuff that ranks with the best of them. He still has the ability to go out and create soft contact. He’s always done that.”
Dipoto said Hernandez would always be compared to his best season, in 2010 when he won the Cy Young Award, a difficult feat for a pitcher to match as he ages.
“Unfortunately for Felix, the barometer by which he will be measured is unsustainable for anybody,” Dipoto said. “This is one of the best pitchers of a generation, and they don’t remain that way forever. There’s going to be some fall-off. We are in the age of social media where when there’s first a wobble, everybody wants the sky to fall.
“We are very reliant on him to do the things he does. Nothing has changed. But we’ve built a group around him that we feel allows him to have his days of struggle, just like everyone else will be allowed. I’m very excited to see what he’s able to do when he gets to Peoria.”
Pitching depth was a big push from Dipoto from the time he arrived in Seattle in late 2015. Dipoto spoke to the mound desperation in last year’s 86-76 season that ended out of the playoffs.
“Last year we used 31 pitchers and we had 13 starting pitchers take a turn,” Dipoto said. “And 21 different pitchers won a game for us. I talked about depth until I was blue in the face last year until spring training began. And as we got to spring training, we were trying to figure out who was going to be our 12th pitcher.
“This year, with a five-man rotation that includes Hernandez, (LHP James) Paxton, (RHP Hisashi) Iwakuma, (LHP Drew) Smyly and (RHP Yovani) Gallardo, we back that group up with what we think is a positive development year with younger guys.”
The team emphasized the integration of Dipoto’s “control the zone” philosophy into Seattle’s farm system to make more MLB-ready prospects. As a partial result, the all seven of the Mariners’ farm clubs made the post-season.
He’s happy with the 11 trades he’s made this off-season, bringing to 35 his total since he joined the club.
“I’d like to express that we’ve (made our team competitive) without stripping the minor leagues,” Dipoto said. “Many of the deals that we’ve made in recent months have been trading major league players for major league players, or prospects for prospects. In the meantime, we have acquired quite a few young players that have joined ourgroup that are sustainable.”
The statement prompted one member of the media to ask if Dipoto thought he had assembled his final roster for spring training.
“We’re never done,” Dipoto said, smiling.
Twenty-five minutes after leaving the podium, Dipoto proved true to his word when he claimed C Tuffy Gosewisch from the Atlanta Braves off waivers, and later traded C Jason Goldstein to Oakland for LHP Dillon Overton and designated C Jesus Sucre for assignment.
No one is certain who will still be on Seattle’s roster on Feb. 14 when the Mariners begin spring training. But Dipoto was clear that he thinks the Mariners can do more than pull up two games short in a wild card chase in 2017.
“I’d like to make the playoffs,” he said. “And ‘win now’ is always my sentiment.
“When you’ve committed roughly $75 million annually to (Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Hernandez), you are in a win-now mode. You don’t get those players to rebuild, you get those players to go win. Our job is to build a roster around that quartet of players that will allow them to perform to the best of their abilities. We did that last year. I know you’ve heard me say before: We intended last year to raise the floor. And I think we raised the floor.”