SEATTLE -- One looming question hanging over the Mariners' Spring Training back in March was whether Felix Hernandez deserved to be the Opening Day starter for a 10th consecutive year. Next spring, the question figures to be whether Hernandez still belongs in the rotation at all.
Though Hernandez wound up pitching 5 1/3 scoreless innings in an Opening Day win over the Indians, the 32-year-old went on to endure the worst season in his outstanding 13-year career. After a decade as the franchise ace, the King went 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA in 29 games (28 starts), including 0-8 with a 6.34 ERA in the final three months.
It reached the point where the former American League Cy Young Award winner briefly lost his starting role in August, until an injury to James Paxton opened the door to his return to the rotation after one relief appearance.
With one year and $27 million remaining on his contract, Hernandez's career has reached a crossroads. It's not a question of whether the Mariners can afford his guaranteed contract, but whether they can afford to keep rolling him out every fifth day and expecting the best.
The Mariners were 69-46 in games started by Paxton, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc, but 11-17 in Hernandez's 28 starts. All five are under team control next season, with Erasmo Ramirez also arbitration eligible. General manager Jerry Dipoto must decide whether to pursue further rotation help this winter.
"We got tremendous production out of 80 percent of our starting pitchers all year long," Dipoto said. "I think if we were sitting here prior to the season and I'd have told you that's the way it was going to go for Marco and Wade, I think anybody would have taken that.
"Mike Leake gave us exactly what you'd expect Mike Leake to give us and James Paxton did that and then some. Those four starters did exactly or far more than what you'd hope."
But Hernandez's ERA has risen from 2.14, in 2014 to 3.53, 3.82, 4.36 and now 5.55. Last season, the Mariners acknowledged he was no longer a 200-plus-inning workhorse, but hoped he could rebound from an injury-plagued 2017 by lightening his workload with shorter outings and occasionally skipping starts.
Hernandez stayed healthier, other than a stiff back in mid-July that cost him two weeks and a late-season slowdown to rest a sore hamstring. But the veteran struggled to find answers most of the year, allowing a career-high 1.400 WHIP and the most home runs he's ever given up in a season (27) despite totaling just 155 2/3 innings.
Manager Scott Servais declined to get too specific about Hernandez's plans for next year.
"We're a long way away from Opening Day," Servais said shortly after the season's final game. "At this point, I would see him in the starting rotation, but a lot of things happen between now and then."
Dipoto, the man in charge of the offseason moves, was a little more forthcoming.
"It was a third consecutive year of maybe less than what you'd expect Felix to deliver," Dipoto said. "We have to do the best we can to put him in a position to be more productive in 2019. And I think he'd be the first one to admit that something needs to give. He does need to move forward."
Hernandez understandably insists he's a starter and wants to remain in that role. But for the Mariners, the question will be what is best for the team and what gives them the best chance to win games next season.
Giving Hernandez a shot in the bullpen to see if he can be an asset in shorter stints would appear a strong possibility.
"At one point late in the summer, we did opt to move him to the bullpen for a reason, because we needed to do something different," Dipoto said. "Unfortunately, a couple unusual circumstances later, he wound up back in the rotation. But we moved him there for a reason and that was to try to reset, but more importantly, to put someone in position to help us win every fifth day.
"At that moment in time, he wasn't doing that. I know he'll take pride in doing it; I know he will come back with a different edge to him than maybe what he had this year. Will that be enough? I'm not sure. We're going to have to wait and see."