We learned over the weekend that Felix Hernandez will rejoin the Mariners and pitch against the Astros Friday night, and I’m not excited about the news.
I should be. When a future hall of famer comes back to his major-league team, it should be viewed as a significant upgrade. I have the same lukewarm feelings about Hisashi Iwakuma, who is also scheduled to return this weekend.
From most observers, the only thing holding this 34-37 team back is its starting pitching, and the returns of Felix and Iwakuma should solidify the Mariners’ rotation. With a better rotation, the bullpen should also be improved with a smaller workload.
Since I mentioned Iwakuma, I’m not excited about his return either, and again I’m a little baffled by that. When a guy who’s viewed as your second or third starter comes back to replace a pitcher who was perceived to be your eighth or ninth starter, or a middle-of-the-rotation guy in Triple-A Tacoma, you should be thrilled.
Those are supposed to be upgrades, and maybe we’ll look back at the end of September and say they certainly were as the Mariners prepare for their one-game playoff as a wild-card team.
(As an aside, I am excited about the return of shortstop Jean Segura, also expected this weekend, because he’ll be replacing the sputtering Taylor Motter and a rookie still finding his way in Tyler Smith.)
Here’s the thing with Felix and Iwakuma: From what we’ve seen recently – and when I say recently, let’s go with the last month of last season to the first part of this season – neither one of those right-handers has been what he used to be.
When we talk best-case with them, we focus on the optimistic possibilities. With Felix, we hope his reduced velocity will be covered up with his secondary stuff and veteran savvy, which could combine to still make him an elite pitcher. With Iwakuma, we hope he can just hang in there and continue to bewilder hitters with his 89 mph fastball on the corners and assortment of other off-speed pitches. With both, we basically hope their pitching know-how will make up for their declining skills.
But if you take the “hope” part out of it, what we’ve seen from both pitchers falls short of what we want to see. Maybe it would help if I lowered my expectations, but it’s hard to do with Felix and Iwakuma, who have been top shelf for so long.
If they come back and have an ERA of around 4.00, that should be called a success. But it’s strange to say that with Felix and Iwakuma. And the main reason I’m not that excited about them coming back are the occasional batting-practice games when the other team knocks them around. It’s one thing to see Yovanni Gallardo get pounded, another to see formerly premier pitchers have it happen to them, though I know Gallardo was a premier guy at one time as well, as hard as that is to believe with what we’ve seen from him in Seattle.
Also, if Felix and Kuma are around 4.00 with their ERAs, would it really be that much better than what you’ve been getting from Sam Gaviglio and Christian Bergman? Gaviglio’s at 3.41 and has been more consistent that Bergman, who beat the Rangers 7-3 Sunday and aside from two ugly starts against the Nationals and Twins has a 2.04 ERA.
Since they have minor-league options remaining, they’ll logically be sent to Tacoma this weekend, but I hope Gaviglio stays and Gallardo is designated for assignment or traded for whatever general manager Jerry Dipoto can get for him.
To get back to what I’m hoping for with reasonable expectations, I’d like to see Felix and Kuma have ERAs around 3.50 and pitch six to seven innings every start. That would be acceptable at this point in their careers. Only thing is, last year when Felix returned from a two-month absence because of a calf strain, his ERA was a full point higher after he came back than it was before he got hurt.
It’s a different Felix we saw then, averaging three strikeouts in his last seven starts of the year. This year in five starts, he was good in two and bad in three. I can’t get over the sight of Felix giving up five hits in the first inning against the Marlins on April 19.
I know that everyone in King’s Court likes to chant K-K-K-K-K every time Felix gets two strikes on a batter, but it’s time for that tradition to end. I’m not sure what it should be replaced by, but what we’re hoping for now are ground balls and pop flies more than strikeouts.
The good news for me is knowing that if Felix and Iwakuma falter or suffer injuries again, Bergman and Gaviglio will be better equipped to replace them after getting major-league experience this spring.
The Go 2 Guy also writes for SeattlePI.com and KitsapSun.com. You can reach Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cougsgo.