The one player with the most amount of focus on him for the upcoming Mariners season is Felix Hernandez, and it’s not hard to see why.
Hernandez has been with Seattle for over a decade, and during the vast majority of that time he has been recognized as the team’s ace and one of the best pitchers in the big leagues. But after a rough 2016 season plagued by inconsistency and interrupted by a calf injury, the prevailing question is if he’ll be able to bounce back in 2017.
So, does that make him the key to the Mariners’ season?
Bob Stelton and Tom Wassell discussed that question Wednesday on 710 ESPN Seattle’s “Bob, Groz and Tom,” and the pair found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Given the option of Hernandez, All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano or slugging DH Nelson Cruz, Stelton believes the most important player for the Mariners will be Cano due to his impact on a day-in, day-out basis both at the plate and in the field. Wassell, meanwhile, sees Hernandez as the one member of Seattle’s starting rotation who has the potential to take pressure off of the offense every fifth day.
“I feel like if you don’t have a good Felix, you don’t have any pitching,” Wassell said. “If he’s worse than he was last year, they got problems. You might have to have Cano and Cruz hitting every single day, which may not happen. Felix can kinda give those two guys a break.”
The discussion was spurred on by comments made by MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds on the show Tuesday, who is impressed by Hernandez’s bulked-up frame from a rigorous offseason workout program and in general thinks reports of the King’s demise have been exaggerated.
“Felix looked great in camp,” Reynolds said. “I think he’s focused. I think he gets a bad rap every now and then; we forget how young he is. Everybody’s talking about he’s got stuff to prove. I just think if he goes out and is Felix, that’s the guy you want.”
Unlike Reynolds, Stelton isn’t convinced Hernandez, who will turn 31 in August, has received all that bad of a rap quite yet.
“I still maintain Felix is pretty universally loved and admired, not just here in Seattle. He’s held in very high regard around the league – outside of last year,” Stelton said. “We’ve all talked about the dip in velocity, but I think that’s true of any ace pitcher who’s been pitching for a long time, you see things change, whether it’s their mechanics or whether it’s their velocity. It’s just the nature of that spot more than the individual. I don’t think anyone’s questioned him until now, coming off the season he just had.”
Wassell, meanwhile, said the amount of people questioning Hernandez’s ability at his current age has as much to do about the high bar he set earlier in his career as anything else.
“I don’t think anyone thinks he’s a bad pitcher … (but) when you go from a Hall of Fame-level pitcher, a guy who has that fear factor, to a guy where that fear factor may or may not be there, that may be the bad rap.”