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Inbox: What's next for King Felix?

Beat reporter Greg Johns answers questions from Mariners fans
@gregjohnsmlb
October 21, 2019

**Felix Hernandez belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of Mariners. Why wouldn’t they sign him back for another few years as a back-end starter? I get the youth movement, but [executive vice president and general manager] Jerry Dipoto has already committed to having some veterans on the staff as well. Even

Felix Hernandez belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of Mariners. Why wouldn’t they sign him back for another few years as a back-end starter? I get the youth movement, but [executive vice president and general manager] Jerry Dipoto has already committed to having some veterans on the staff as well. Even a long relief role wouldn’t be so bad.
-- Zack G., Gresham, Ore.

Félix Hernández had an amazing career in Seattle, but at some point, it’s time to move on. And that time clearly has come for both Hernandez and the Mariners. It was great that Hernandez put together an emotional farewell performance at T-Mobile Park in his final start, but that doesn’t mask the fact he went 1-16 with a 6.38 ERA over his last 26 outings (25 starts) since July 1, 2018.

Hernandez still sees himself as a starter, but right shoulder issues made him an unreliable option the past few years as he spent more than half the season on the injured list in both 2017 and ‘19.

The team wasn’t always happy with how Hernandez physically prepared himself or how he resisted suggestions on how to adjust his pitching approach as he got older. Hernandez wasn’t happy about being demoted to the bullpen briefly in 2018, losing his Opening Day starter status this season and dealing with the decline that nearly every elite athlete faces at some point in their careers.

Hernandez is only 33, so it’s possible he still has some life left in the Major Leagues. But I think both sides agree their remarkable 15-year relationship has run its course and it's time for a change.

What do you see the Mariners doing at first base and designated hitter next season? Are they considering Domingo Santana at first? Is Daniel Vogelbach possibly done, or are they going to start the season with him? Austin Nola seems like he might be a valuable utility player, but are they really considering him as a first base starter?
-- Aaron M., Kailua Kona, Hawaii

Let’s start by noting how divided the Mariners were at first base this year. Here’s the number of starts for each player: Vogelbach 49, Edwin Encarnacion 45, Nola 44, Jay Bruce 15, Tim Beckham 4, Ryon Healy 3, Dylan Moore 1, Ryan Court 1. Meanwhile, Vogelbach started 80 games at designated hitter and no one else had more than Encarnacion’s 19 starts before he was traded.

As we sit right now, before any offseason moves are made, the plan is for Vogelbach to remain the primary DH going into Spring Training, with the ability to back up at first if needed. Nola proved he can play first base and has a solid bat. Though he played just 79 games, he posted an fWAR of 1.5 and his versatility -- particularly his ability to catch if needed -- makes him a valuable commodity, particularly with next year’s switch to 26-man roster.

But the real first base solution sits with 2017 first-round Draft pick Evan White, the Mariners' No. 4 prospect (per MLB Pipeline), who will be given every opportunity this spring to show if he’s ready to make the jump from Double-A. White is by far the best defensive first baseman in the organization and as soon as he appears capable of hitting Major League pitching, the 23-year-old will get the call.

The presence of Nola and Vogelbach will allow the Mariners to wait on White if needed, but there seems no doubt he’ll be in Seattle as some point next year. As for Santana? He looks like a first baseman and occasionally took some ground balls there in pregame work, but he’s never played anything except outfield in his 11 seasons of pro ball. I could see that being an interesting experiment if he’s still with the team next year, though I haven’t heard that yet from anyone in the organization.

With all the home runs hit in MLB this year, in how many Mariners games was a home run hit, by either team? My guess is close to 155.
-- Dan T., Shoreline, Wash.

As you might remember, the Mariners set a Major League record by having a home run hit in their first 107 games this season, either by themselves or their opponent. That shattered the old mark of 69. In their final 55 games, they wound up having four games without a homer. So your guess was actually low, as there was a long ball in 158 of their 162 games on the year.

The four games without a homer were July 27 vs. the Tigers, Aug. 31 at the Rangers, Sept. 2 at the Cubs and Sept. 19 at the Pirates.

Any chance the Mariners can get Gerrit Cole?
-- Chuck H., Kelso, Wash.

No, the Mariners won’t be in the running for the best -- and highest-priced -- free agent pitcher on the market this winter. Cole figures to command $200 million or more, and he will have his choice of destinations. Seattle has cleared a lot of its long-term commitments off the books, but will wait to maximize that payroll flexibility when its top young prospects are ready to make a legitimate playoff push.

The Astros got Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke as the finishing pieces once they were prime contenders, not during their rebuilding time. Paying for an elite starter in his peak seasons during that rebuilding phase, then being on the hook for the later years of that deal when he may not still be a $30 million a year talent doesn’t seem wise.

Also remember that the player has a choice in these matters. Hard to imagine Cole deciding he wants to pitch for a team that is currently in a rebuilding phase unless they completely blow everyone else out of the water with its offer, which again isn’t the best use of resources for one player at this point.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.