The most striking image from Felix Hernandez's Aug. 15 perfect game against the Rays wasn't an overpowering fastball or a stellar defensive play. No, it was the sight of the Mariners righthander, arms raised, looking to the sky in triumph just before his teammates swarmed him. The 26-year-old Hernandez is right there with Justin Verlander in any discussion of the best pitcher in baseball, but he's had too few moments in which he could express that kind of joy on a baseball field.
This is Hernandez's seventh full season in the majors. In that time Seattle has won just 46% of its games and never made the playoffs. In Hernandez's starts the Mariners have been a .564 team; in all other games, they've played .428 ball. They are headed for another sub-.500 finish, with a team that may, yet again, set modern records for offensive futility. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, just 15 teams have had a sub-.300 OBP in a full season. Two of those teams were the 2010 and '11 Mariners, and this year's club has a .294 mark that would be the second-lowest since 1976. Having one of the best starting pitchers in baseball is a tremendous asset, but the 2010--12 Mariners have gone 48--44 in his starts—barely above .500. For almost his entire career Hernandez has been an alltime great talent trying to drag 24 players not worthy of him to the postseason—but he's most famous for being the guy who won the Cy Young Award (in 2010) with a 13--12 record.
It's time for the Mariners to do something they have avoided for years: Trade their ace. He is wasted on a team that hasn't put a major league offense on the field during his peak. And with two full seasons to go on a contract extension that pays him a total of $39.5 million in 2013 and '14, he may never again have more trade value. Hernandez is the only Mariner who can bring back the kind of package that could change the future of the organization, which needs middle-of-the-order talent. The Mariners have, in Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, a clutch of highly regarded pitching prospects, allowing them to focus on getting hitting prospects while also being able to replace Hernandez.
It's an awful spot for the Mariners, who two years ago signed Hernandez to a five-year extension that they thought would end talk of trading him. But if he isn't traded, Hernandez is unlikely to play for a playoff team in 2013 or '14, not with the Rangers building an AL West dynasty, the Angels competing dollar-for-dollar with them and the A's showing some fight behind their young pitching.
It's even good for baseball if the Mariners trade Hernandez. The game is at its best when the fans get to see the stars, and no one gets to see Hernandez. All those Seattle losses have been baseball fans' loss too. It's in everyone's best interests to see Hernandez pitch in big games in September and October.
It's a shame, because Mariners fans have come out to support Hernandez in great numbers, creating a section at Safeco Field—the King's Court—and filling it on the days he pitches. Even so, the Mariners are 26th in the majors in average attendance. It's winning, not superstars, that drives people to the ballpark. As much bad blood as a trade would create between the Mariners and their fan base, the fans are already rejecting this team. Success will bring them back, and the quickest way to build it is by dealing Hernandez for a package that will do for Seattle what the 2007 Mark Teixeira trade did for the Rangers. Pitchers Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz and shortstop Elvis Andrus, all acquired in that deal with the Braves, have elevated the Rangers to two pennants. Nothing is guaranteed, but a comparable haul for Hernandez (who is a more valuable property than the slugging Teixeira was) would accelerate the rebuilding process.
Teams are loath to make moves that will alienate their supporters, but the time has come for the Mariners to do the unpopular, correct thing. Watching that perfect game surely felt great for Seattle fans. But watching a consistent contender would feel even better.