The Mariners’ self-described theme for this season is “a step back.” Not that they plan to use it as a marketing slogan. While the move wouldn’t be as embarrassing as, say, former Sonics owner Howard Schultz threatening to run for president, there’s only so many tinfoil hats that can be tolerated in a single sports market.
But as spring training gets underway in Peoria, AZ., this week, perhaps the Mariners’ 2019 circumstances could best be described by another phrase: Team Awkward.
The notion of tanking a season or three in order to improve in the long term has gained increasingly widespread acceptance in MLB. But none of the adopters are stepping back from 17 seasons in a row without playoffs.
The off-season was convulsed by charges from the team’s high-performance director, Dr. Lorena Martin, that GM Jerry Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and farm director Andy McKay made sexist and racist remarks, and also damaged her ability to do her job, from which she was fired in October.
While the results released last week of an investigation by MLB into the episode found no evidence to support her charges, Martin in December filed a wrongful-termination suit in King County Superior Court and wrote last week on social media that she plans to pursue justice:
— Lorena Martin (@LMHighPerform) February 6, 2019
Next month, the Mariners play the Athletics in the regular season’s first two games in Tokyo, where the expectation is to see Ichiro, 45, in the lineup. This is despite strong evidence from 15 games (nine singles in 47 plate appearances) in 2018 that he can no longer play at the MLB level. So when the 28-man roster for the Japan games is cut to 25, the Mariners must decide whether to keep him on the roster, cut one of the game’s most iconic players, or re-install him in his made-up job as assistant to the chairman.
Now comes the final contract year of the storied career of another Mariners icon, Felix Hernandez.
Obligated to pay him $27 million despite coming off his career-worst season (8-14, 5,88 ERA, -1.2 WAR), the Mariners seem to have no graceful exit strategy for the seven-time All-Star selection and Cy Young Award winner. Maybe there is none.
Hernandez insists he is still a competitive pitcher, defiantly telling reporters Wednesday on reporting day that last season was irrelevant.
“That’s the past,” he said. “I don’t care what happened last season. I just got here, and it’s a new year. I just want to get ready to play baseball.
“I know it’s my final year. But I don’t think I’m done.”
His 2,658 career innings pitched is fifth-most among active starters, trailing only C.C. Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Justin Verlander and Zach Greinke, and he is the youngest among them (33 in April). But the miles seem harder on him, perhaps because he needed to be more committed to fitness and less committed to pitching the fireballing way he did when he was in his prime. (And please don’t analogize to the 45-year-old Colon; he’s as inexplicable as gravel ice cream.)
He doesn’t want to be retired (and lose $27 million), a reliever or a minor leaguer, and the Mariners can’t find a trade partner for him unless they throw in Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and the Space Needle.
So that means he’s somewhere in a rotation that includes Gonzales, Mike Leake, Yusei Kikuchi and Wade LeBlanc. It’s actually a fairly seasoned group. In a year dedicated to development instead of contention, an aspiration for the fifth spot should be a youngster such as Justus Sheffield, the well-regarded lefty acquired from the Yankees.
But Hernandez seems to have the spot.
Maybe he will earn it with a good spring. He needs to be given every chance to prove he can deliver some quality innings.
If not, perhaps the Mariners need to prepare one of their always spot-on tribute nights.
They shouldn’t want a repeat of the exit of Ken Griffey Jr. in June 2010. Hitting .184 in 98 at-bats, Griffey had his car towed to the stadium garage. After the game and without a word, he jumped in the car and drove to his home in Orlando. End of career.
At the time, he was criticized by many, including me, for the unceremonious departure. Upon reflection, I understand it. He didn’t want to be hailed at one of the most sad, depressing moments of his life, in the middle of a bad season. People may disagree, but he’s entitled to his own feelings ahead of the fans’ feelings.
Still, it was awkward.
If Hernandez can’t prove himself before Opening Day, persuasively commit to him that his career is eminently worthy of a civic celebration. Hail to the King. Fifi Forever. Hernan-Days. Whatever. And fly in his pal, Adrian Beltre.
Don’t wait until he hurts himself on the mound and limps off with an impulsive, Earl Thomas-style salute aimed at the owners’ suite.
Then make him assistant to the chairman, John Stanton. It’s been done before, a franchise can never be too deep at the spot, and for outfit that knows awkward, it’s better to be a little awkward than a lot awkward.