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Out of Right Field: Distractions abound for Mariners as Felix Hernandez moves to pen and Robinson Cano returns

Back in late June in this space, when the Seattle Mariners were still doing pretty well but showing signs of decline, I wrote some fairly critical things about the team. I received some fairly critical responses questioning my integrity and intelligence in my inbox, most not fit to print.

My job as columnist is not to be cheerleader, but an analyst.

Since that column posted the Mariners have played one game above .500 and have gone from 3 1/2 games out of first place in the division to 1 1/2 games out of the wild card. It’s been a hard reckoning for the M’s the past month and a half, tarnishing what was an exhilarating – if unsustainable – first 70 games of the season.

And it’s going to get harder still.

After another terrible performance, culminating a truly forgettable six-week stretch, longtime ace Felix Hernandez was removed from the starting rotation.

Hernandez has pitched to a 7.27 ERA in his last seven starts with eight homers allowed in 34 2/3 innings.

His presumed replacement is Erasmo Ramirez – the definition of “serviceable” – but not a panacea. Ramirez is simply a less-bad option right now than running Hernandez out every five days to throw batting practice.

The next-best options currently toiling in Tacoma are righty Christian Bergman and lefty Ross Detwiler, a former sixth-overall pick of the Washington Nationals who has bounced around four organizations the past three seasons with just 14 MLB starts in the period.

Both pitchers have Triple-A ERAs over 5.00. This is what the M’s are left with to try to catch Oakland for the second wild card to get an invitation to get beat up by the Yankees on national TV.

It’s tough watching Hernandez’ career wind down in this manner. For 14 seasons he’s been a stalwart, the anchor. The “King.”

A six-time all-star, five-time Cy Young top 10 with a first and two seconds.

But time catches up with everyone.

Each of the past four seasons, Hernandez’ ERA, hit rate and walks have gone up while his strikeouts have gone down.

His once-powerful fastball has always been flat, but he used to be able to throw it by hitters with precision to all four quadrants of the strike zone. Now, with no movement, pedestrian velocity, little separation between fastball and changeup and spotty control, if he doesn’t have his sharp control in a start he’s very vulnerable to contact.

Hard contact.

So, for now, Felix will be banished to the bullpen. The King becomes a foot soldier.

“Very difficult,” manager Scott Servais said on Thursday about moving Hernandez out of the rotation. “I certainly respect him and everything he’s done here throughout his career, but these things happen and ultimately it’s about the team.

“It’s never easy. But hopefully he takes it the right way. He’ll get a chance to pitch at some point down there. Maybe he can work his way back into the rotation. We’ll see. He’ll let us know on that.”

Down there.”

On Saturday, the first game he was designated to work out of the pen, beat reporters finally caught up with Hernandez and he said mostly all the right things.

“I’m part of the team and I’m going to do whatever is possible to help the team,” he told reporters. “I’m a professional. I’ll be ready.”

But Hernandez also reiterated where his preference lies.

“I’m going to be a starter anyway. I’m not a reliever. I’m a starter.”

For a team in a free fall on the field and in the standings, it’s a distraction that the team can’t afford.

But speaking of distractions…

Robinson Cano is eligible to return to the big league dugout on Tuesday.

Cano’s 80-game suspension for violating baseball’s performance-enhancing drug policy expires in just a couple of days. Adding an eight-time all-star to a lineup in August would normally be the biggest acquisition a team could hope for in a pennant race.

But therein lies the rub.

Even if the Mariners somehow find a way to flip the momentum and qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2001 and end the longest postseason drought of any team in the four major sports, Cano isn’t eligible for postseason play due to the nature of his suspension.

And where does he play?

Dee Gordon, a Gold Glove winner at second who started the season in centerfield to accommodate Cano, has manned the position admirably since Cano’s suspension. Shifting Gordon back to center seems a mistake.

So Cano, who is signed through 2023 at $24 million per, has become the world’s most expensive utility player.

He has played primarily first base during his “rehab” stint – where he is 5 of 8 with two homers and six RBIs in two games for the short-A Everett AquaSox – with appearances at third and designated hitter for Triple-A Tacoma.

All of those positions are well-stocked at the big league level.

How – or if – Cano fits into a lineup that wouldn’t be able to utilize him in the postseason anyway could be another friction-producing element into a clubhouse that is in no need for any more turmoil.

How the M’s manage Cano down the stretch could tell us a lot about how general manager Jerry Dipoto plans to deal with Cano going forward.

If Servais finds him daily at-bats and massages him into the lineup without disrupting the rest of the team, then we might infer that Dipoto hopes to rehabilitate Cano’s reputation and resuscitate his once Hall of Fame career.

But if Cano turns into a glorified pinch-hitter and “Sunday starter” down the stretch – in a pennant race – it might signal the first step of an acrimonious divorce between the club and player.

As if the Mariners didn’t have enough to deal with on the field, off-field issues with their two stars and highest paid players will complicate anything the team does the rest of the way.


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