Longtime Mariners rotation fixture Felix Hernandez has lost his job in the starting five, manager Scott Servais told reporters (including MLB.com’s Greg Johns) after last night’s game. Hernandez will be moved to the bullpen, and while Servais left open the possibility that the former ace could become a starter again this season, the focus is clearly on Hernandez getting back any of his old form.
The decision comes on the heels of one of the worst outings of Hernandez’s 14-year career; the right-hander allowed 11 runs (seven earned) over six innings against the Rangers last Tuesday. That start underlined just what a rough season it has been for Hernandez, who has a 5.73 ERA, 7.19 K/9, 2.15 K/BB rate, and a hefty 1.5 HR/9 in 124 innings. Advanced metrics (5.03 FIP, 4.72 xFIP, 4.66 SIERA) paint only a slightly better picture of his performance this year, while Hernandez’s 39.5% hard-hit ball rate is by far the highest of his career and well beyond his 27.7% career average.
Hernandez is a completely unknown quantity as a relief pitcher, as he has started all 398 of his career Major League games, and last appeared as a reliever when he was a 19-year-old phenom pitching at the Triple-A level in 2005. It also remains to be seen how he’ll adjust to the role change on an emotional level — Hernandez simply told reporters “I’ve got nothing to say,” when asked to comment yesterday.
After several years as one of the game’s best and more durable pitchers, Hernandez’s effectiveness began to dip in 2015, and injuries limited him to just 240 total innings and 1.4 fWAR in 2016-17. Aside from a brief DL stint for back soreness in July, health doesn’t seem to be the problem for Hernandez this year, as he simply may have hit a wall at age 32 after all these years and all those innings (an average of 218 IP per season from 2006-15).
Unfortunately for Hernandez and the Mariners, the bulk of the veteran righty’s downturn has mostly coincided with the length of the seven-year, $175MM extension he signed prior to the 2013 season. Hernandez is still owed $29MM in 2019, a number that now looks like a sunk cost for the team. Between Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Dee Gordon, and Mike Leake, Seattle has over $100MM in salary committed next season towards five players who have combined for just 5.5 fWAR in 2018 (with the slight caveat of Cano’s 80-game absence due to a PED suspension).
With Hernandez now in the pen, that leaves the quartet of James Paxton, Leake, Marco Gonzales, and Wade LeBlanc as Seattle’s top four starters. Swingman Erasmo Ramirez has spent much of the season on the DL and is still rehabbing, so Casey Lawrence, Christian Bergman, or Robert Whalen could step in as the fifth starter on at least a temporary basis. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto is no stranger to the trade market, so with the M’s still battling in the wild card race, the team can’t be counted out to make a move for a starter, if they can work out a deal through the August waiver period.