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Fully invested

Each year, Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez’s leadership role has grown with his stature in the game. (Associated Press)
Each year, Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez’s leadership role has grown with his stature in the game. (Associated Press)

Hernandez has become heart of M’s on and off field

SEATTLE – It was three hours after the most starkly depressing Mariners defeat of the season – and there are quite a few candidates for that distinction.

Philip Humber, a journeyman right-hander for the Chicago White Sox whose career before and after April 21 has been marked by mediocrity, had just hurled a perfect game at Safeco Field, the 21st in major league history. A small group of Mariners hitters sat at their locker, commiserating and dissecting the occasion.

Among them, still in full uniform, sitting on the clubhouse floor, was Felix Hernandez, giving the disconsolate hitters a pep talk.

“He was telling them, ‘This is going to work. This is going to be OK,’ ” said pitching coach Carl Willis. “Obviously, he didn’t have to do that. But he has a passion for the game, and he has a passion for the Mariners. It’s real.”

As manager of the Cleveland Indians, Eric Wedge for years had monitored the progress of Hernandez at a distance, from flame-throwing but erratic youngster to increasingly poised ace. But when he took the Mariners’ job last year, Wedge was unprepared for the total package he was inheriting.

“If I could have had a best-case scenario what this guy is all about, before I came in here, on and off the field – the way he handles himself, the type of teammate he is, the type of competitor he is, the way he feels about Seattle, the way he goes about his business, the way he leads by example – it couldn’t be any better,” Wedge said. “Maybe even better than that.”

That is the Felix Hernandez who will leave today for Kansas City and his third All-Star appearance. Undoubtedly, he is the face of the franchise. But, increasingly, he is also the heart and soul of the Mariners, which could become an increasingly important factor as the organization faces the agonizing decision of how to proceed with Hernandez’s future.

Many analysts are urging the M’s to trade Hernandez, maybe as soon as this year’s trade deadline, to get the highest possible return before he inevitably hits free agency after the 2014 season. That’s when his current five-year, $78 million contract expires.

What they are missing is that Hernandez is fully invested in the ballclub, and the city, having attained the level of commitment that every ballclub covets from its superstars, but rarely gets.

He and his family – wife Sandra and young children Mia and Abraham – have made a home here. Hernandez has forged close friendships on the ballclub. He’s comfortable with the organization. And despite the struggles he has never shown anything less than a total desire to make it work in Seattle.

That alone is not a reason to keep Hernandez. There are certainly powerful arguments to be made for trading him, if not now then at some point before his contract ends. Though he is barely three months past his 26th birthday, Hernandez’s workload is mounting. He just passed 1,500 innings, and historically, that is often a precursor to marked decline. The Mariners are not an organization that can afford an “oops” on a $100 million-plus contract, which Hernandez will likely command.

Wil Polidor, Hernandez’s agent, said Friday that there have yet to be substantive talks with the Mariners on an extension.

“All he’s worried about is helping the Mariners win the game every time he pitches,” Polidor said.

Hernandez’s future in Seattle also was cloudy the first time he neared free agency. He confounded many people by re-upping in January 2010, citing his comfort with the organization and his belief in a brighter future.

By all accounts, that conviction hasn’t changed. Each year, Hernandez’s leadership role has grown with his stature in the game.