SEATTLE, WA - JULY 24: Fans in the King's Court section cheer after starting pitcher Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners struck out Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees at Safeco Field on July 24, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners defeated the Yankees 4-2. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Baseball is a dirty game.
I originally started this post heaping platitudes on Felix Hernandez. But what can I tell you that you don't already know? He's still only 26 and throws pitches that look like they've been shot out of a Ghostbuster's Proton Pack. He's good. He's DAMN good, he's a Mariner, and he's the best player they have, the likes of which few teams possess or could even hope to acquire.
However, baseball is a dirty game. And by dirty, I mean you need either a mountain of cash or extreme patience when it comes to roster development. Timing is the key, since the slow development of baseball players often requires years of minor league seasoning and then an often painful acclimation to the big leagues. As we've learned this year, it cannot, and will not, be rushed. We are disappointed in amount of losses, dismayed by the lack of runs, even depressed over the lack of development by the young crop of hitters.
So the inevitable question is: can we afford to keep Felix and wait for this team to evolve? Will they hit? Will more pitching arrive in time to bolster the rest of the rotation? I think the time has come where we have to ask ourselves, what would it take to pull that trigger?
I decided to look through rosters around the league and try and put together trade scenarios that I'd be comfortable with. I wanted to see if I could design a type of trade that would be both plausible and palatable. This was an exercise for me to try and qualify (and sometimes quantify) the return I'd need to trade Felix Hernandez away from the Seattle Mariners.
In the end, I arrived at one simple truth. The Mariners simply cannot and should not trade Felix Hernandez now. No deal I could come up worked, because one team was always giving up too much, and while I have a hard time rationally judging Felix's trade value, I think I was stymied by a much more important reason. In baseball, a team is nearly always moving in one direction. By rebuilding, a team moves backwards, away from established skills and on field success, and attempts to acquire potential that they hope can develop into greater amounts of realized ability. Their on field performance almost always declines since most prospects need minor league AND major league seasoning before becoming actual contributors to their team's success.
At some point, a team has to turn in around and stop shedding veterans and let the developing players play. At this point, the team is moving away from rebuilding, and back towards contention. This process takes a lot longer than tearing it down, so even though we are heading that way once again, it still feels a long way off.
But look at the roster. This team, as of now, has 3 players under contract next year (Felix, Chone Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez; I'm assuming Miguel Olivo does not get his option picked up). They have two players in their third year of Arbitration (Brendan Ryan and Jason Vargas), two players in their first year of Arbitration (John Jaso and Shawn Kelley). The rest of the roster has yet to accrue more than 3 years of Service Time. That's Ackley, Montero, Smoak, Seager, Saunders, Wells, Wilhelmsen and more. That is a ton of youth. This is the growth period. This is when this team starts turning potential into ability. Trading away Felix would be a move in the wrong direction. It would be a step towards rebuilding, not contention.
Another way to look at it is to think about the types of players the Mariners should be looking to acquire, in general. Most would argue that young but established major league players should be of the greatest import, over the acquisition of prospects or high-priced free agents. That's why Justin Upton's availability caused such a stir is Seattle, and why Hunter Pence should do the same, as well as Melky Cabrera this offseason. Doesn't a 26 year old pitcher, with that kind of ability and track record fit right into that mold? So why then should he be given up? Because the national media has been trained to view us as AAAA farm system for the teams like the Yankees? Because we call Southeast Alaska home? Because Red Sox supporters really really want him ('pleeaaaasssseeee, don't we deserve him, we didn't win a World Series for like a billion years').
Felix Hernandez is an enormous part of what this team is trying to do, which is turning the prospects they have into productive major league players. Because most of them, right now, are neither. They are young players, riddled with growing pains at the major league level. But there is time for them to get better. Failures can makes us better at whatever it is we do, often in more effective says then success can. It'd be nice if everyone could just be Mike Trout, and hit the ground running (and hitting, and catching everything hit his way, and stealing bases) but that's so very unrealistic. It takes time, but patience will pay off.