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If you were to say five years ago that Felix Hernandez would not be starting the first game for the Mariners during the 2019 season, people would have thought you were crazy. The same thing would have been said if someone would have predicted he wouldn’t even be the third option in the rotation. Here we are now, however, and the fall from grace that “King Felix” has endured is something to behold.
The Mariners informed Felix Hernandez that he would not be starting the season for the team, ending a run that lasted ten consecutive seasons. This is in part due to the past two seasons being a major step back for the former AL Cy Young winner. Between 2017 and 2018, Felix has a combined 14-19 record, posting an ERA of 4.36 and 5.55. At 32 (entering 33), Felix’s velocity has gone way done, almost topping around 92.
This spring has not been kind to the six-time All-Star. In three games, the 33-year-old has given up 13 earned runs while accumulating an ERA of 15.95. What can the Mariners do with him? As the team looks to get younger, Felix is costing them $27 million in the final year of the $175 million deal he signed before the 2013 season. He has a team option for 2020, but the way things are going, this may be the last we see “King Felix” in a Mariners uniform.
Is there a way to salvage the career of the man with over 2,400 strikeouts and 168 wins? Just like players of old, a change of scenery within the club wouldn’t hurt. A move to the bullpen might be what Felix Hernandez needs.
When John Smoltz (age 34) needed to transition to the bullpen following multiple injuries, including Tommy John surgery, he became a different player. From late 2001 to 2004, Smoltz dominated the game as a closer. He held the Braves record with 154 saves until Craig Kimbrel came along. The new role provided him a platform to relax his arm while showing his dominance in a different way. He eventually made it back to being a starter, but that is a different story to tell.
Dennis Eckersley is another prominent pitcher-turned-reliever. Prior to 1987, Eckersley had a killer arm for the likes of Boston and Cleveland. While he had a solid slider, his personal demons ended up getting in the way of his greatness. When he was traded to the A’s in ’87, he found his true calling at age 32 as a reliever.
At age 37, Eckersley won the AL Cy Young and MVP award after saving 51 games while striking out 93 in 69 games. He ended up becoming one of the first pitchers in MLB history to have both a 20-win and a 50-save season. Smoltz was the other.
While it is unknown how Felix Hernandez would do as a member of the Mariners’ bullpen, it wouldn’t hurt to test it out. If it results in success, then it might not deter the Mariners from picking up his option. It might also give Felix the slap he needs to wake himself up.
In a season filled with question marks, Felix Hernandez has become a top concern. While not definitive, some rest while slightly altering his career would be something to look into. The question is, can King Felix accept that Father Time is not on his side and find some way to hold onto the game he loves to play?