Monday, February 28, 2005

The Great Felix Debate 

Felix Hernandez is causing some eyes to open wide in Peoria, most notably Mike Hargrove's.
"Very rarely when people tell you about someone special does that person live up to or exceed the talk. This kid exceeds. This kid is electric. You can't crown him as the next Cy Young, but he is electric. He has a nice, easy motion. It's easy to like a 98-mph fastball, but then you look at his changeup. Very rarely do I sit in the bullpen to watch a pitcher throw, but it's fun to watch this kid throw."
Felix excelling this soon presents quite a quandary (obviously a great one to be in)to Mariners management. Essentially, the question is, if Felix Hernandez looks like he can be a stud in 2005, should he start the season with the Mariners, or should we shelter him a bit, tidy up his game, protect his arm, and save a year of service time by starting him in Tacoma?

This has sparked some excellent debate over at the Sportspot forum.

Those arguing against calling up King Felix cite concerns such as:
- We must baby his arm, and its easier to keep him on a pitch count / start count in Tacoma. (In the Sportspot thread is ;ots of good medical stuff about the development of 18 year old pitching arms which I won't get into).
- Other young pitchers to come up recently have not been mature enough and flamed out. See Doc Gooden, and Steve Blass reincarnation Rick Ankiel.
- There will be too much pressure on Felix.
- Felix needs work on his pickoff move and defense.
- Felix needs to work on handling adversity as he already tends to overthrow when troubles hit.
- Felix has not dominated AAA competition yet.

To me none of these arguments are very strong for keeping Felix out of the majors. If he is already one of our best pitchers, then he can learn the finer points of fielding his position and handling adversity from the mouths of masters such as Jamie Moyer. The big league club has big league training room facilities best equipped to baby Felix. As far as pressure goes, what better time to come up with the Mariners, then after a 99-loss season. Is it better to wait until August when we're in the middle of a pennant race? This is what happened to Ankiel.

The one argument against bringing Felix up that I find no fault with is that it starts the clock ticking on the six years during which the Mariners control his contract. If, instead, the Mariners wait until June 1st to call up Mr. Hernandez, then we get all of this years PLUS an additional six years. For those of you who think that's no big deal, think about ARod's first year in the majors that he spent riding the bench and pinch hitting. Then think about how 2001 might have ended if ARod was still on the team for his 6th year. If we are not going to use Felix full out, maybe we SHOULD wait until June 1 to call him up.

The argument FOR bringing up King Felix is a powerful one. He may be the best pitcher on the staff! He may be a top 5 pitcher in the major leagues in his rookie season! He could be the difference between the Mariners making the playoffs and sitting home in October. How do you not play someone who may be the best pitcher on your team? Dr. Detecto has a subscriber-only entry over at InsideThePark that is sure to leave you drooling for Felix taking the mound on Opening Day!

Obviously, this argument may be a bit premature. Its only two weeks into Spring and we haven't started playing the games yet. But suppose Felix dominates over the month of March. How can we seriously consider starting him off in Tacoma?

Originally, my thoughts were: FREE KING FELIX! I want to see him pitch and lead the Mariners on a worst-to-first 2005 World Series run! But on further review, I have come to believe that we are best served with Felix spending April and May in Tacoma. First of all, it DOES give him a pressure-free chance to work on fine tuning his game, and allows the Mariners to fully baby him during the coldest months of the season. Following a big Spring, this will have him fully ready to pitch for Seattle in June, with less chance of him overthrowing in April/May as he tries to prove he belongs.

Another reason that I think we should start him off in Tacoma, is to give the team time to evaluate the rest of the rotation, to see who also should be in the rotation. Is Jamie Moyer going to rebound? How about Ryan Franklin? Will we see the good Gilgamesh? Is Joel Pineiro healthy? Can Bobby Madritsch build on his 2004 success? Does Jorge Campillo belong in the majors? How about Matt Thornton? Rett Johnson? Hopefully we won't find out much more about Aaron Sele?

Playing some of these guys in April and May lets them show off for potential suitors, as a trade may be the best way to make room for King Felix on the 40 man roster.

Might this strategy cost the M's a game or two in April and May? It might, it might not. Assuming that we were only going to see 5-6 innings of King Felix in these games, perhaps it won't cost us as much as you might think. And with the bats ready to unleash their fury on the rest of the AL, we might skate by awhile without our best pitchers.

And whether we start the season strong or mediocre, the club will get an additional boost of energy when King Felix is called up. Let April and May be the time for Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to provide the new energy. When that energy starts to fade over the course of a long season, there's nothing like a dose of Felix Hernandez to get the blood pumping again.

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