Jack Zduriencik knew why I had called before I even asked a question.
Depending upon your perspective, it’s either good or bad that Jack Z is reading my mind.
I say good, because Jack Z is always pleasant about it, and maybe he and I can one day take our act on the road.
“Trade Felix,” I say.
“No,” Jack Z replies.
Now before Mariners fans get all upset with me again for suggesting to their GM that he trade right-hander Felix Hernandez, allow me to cite two recent developments:
• The Padres’ boffo return for right-hander Mat Latos, a pitcher who isn’t nearly as good as Hernandez (who is?).
• The Athletics’ strong return for left-hander Gio Gonzalez, another pitcher who isn’t nearly as good as Hernandez.
• The stunning offseason additions of the Rangers and Angels, who no longer are simply the best teams in the AL West, but perhaps the best in the American League.
The Mariners, even if they somehow sign free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, aren’t going to make the playoffs next season, and probably wouldn’t qualify in 2013, either.
I understand the fan opposition to trading Hernandez, but the goal is not to destroy the M’s, it’s to make them better.
The Yankees, as I wrote in March, are a logical trade partner, deep in young talent and strong enough financially to absorb the $58 million left on the final three years of Hernandez’s contract. For King Felix, other teams would jump, too.
Zduriencik, though, says that he doesn’t want to hear it, that his plan is to keep Hernandez and make him the anchor for the team’s emerging rotation.
I get that — the Mariners’ young starting pitchers, if everything breaks right, might rank among the best in the game in two or three years.
But here’s the problem:
Hernandez, 25, is under contract only through 2014. And if the Mariners don’t turn it around during that time, he will not stay in Seattle out of the goodness of his heart.
He’ll be gone.
As Yankees GM Brian Cashman advised reporters last season when judging A.J. Burnett, it’s time for the Mariners to “smoke the objective pipe.”
As the Rays have shown in the AL East, the only way to compete with high-revenue behemoths is to assemble a large number of high-end young players and have them hit at once.
That was the Padres’ motivation for trading Latos, the Royals’ motivation for trading Zack Greinke. Granted, Hernandez is at a different level. Granted, the M’s can support much higher payrolls. But why not commit fully to rebuilding?
OK, Jack, your turn:
“I still say, as I’ve said all along, we’ve still got the best young pitcher in the game, and that’s pretty darned good,” Zduriencik said, referring to Hernandez.
“One thing we have here — what we’re really excited about — is young pitching. You take Felix and (Michael) Pineda. We think James Paxton is going to be really good. We’ll give him a chance in spring training. Same with (Danny) Hultzen. We’ve got a young kid, Taijuan Walker, who might be the best of them all. Erasmo Ramirez . . .
“We’re a year or less from having some of these really good arms sitting on our ballclub. It’s kind of what we’re hanging our hats on right now. All of us are excited about what’s going to happen in the next year or two.”
And Jack, I’d be right there with you, if only the Mariners could hit.
The M’s last season scored 556 runs, ranking last in the majors for the second straight year. The Padres — playing in cavernous Petco Park, without the benefit of a DH, in their first season without Adrian Gonzalez — scored 593.
Even if the Mariners could get Fielder — and I’m highly skeptical that he would choose them over a team with a more realistic chance of contending soon — how much of a difference would he actually make?
The M’s seem to believe that the effect would be exponential, that they would get not just Fielder’s 120 RBI, but benefit from his ripple effect throughout the lineup. Fielder would absorb the middle-of-the-order pressure. Younger hitters such as Mike Carp, Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager would be free to be themselves.
Makes sense in theory, but Fielder might walk 200 times in such a lineup. Opponents would have little incentive to pitch to him, preferring to attack younger hitters instead.
More to the point, what happens if the M’s don’t get Fielder? Catcher John Jaso currently stands as their big addition. And it’s too late in the offseason for them to make other moves of consequence.
No, better to go the other way.
Not all of the Mariners’ young pitchers and hitters are going to develop in the way that club officials anticipate. The more prospects a team collects, the greater the chances that it will succeed.
Zduriencik had the right idea last summer, sacrificing wins to acquire a strong return for right-hander Doug Fister and a lesser one for lefty Erik Bedard.
Now Jack Z should go to the Yankees and demand essentially the same package I suggested last March — catcher Jesus Montero, infielder Eduardo Nunez and right-hander Ivan Nova plus righty Dellin Betances or lefty Manny Banuelos.
Maybe the Yankees wouldn’t budge on Nova, who went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA last season. Fine, tell them to include two different youngsters, make it a 5-for-1. For King Felix, the Yankees would part waters, move mountains and — surprise! — blow past the dreaded luxury-tax threshold yet again.
“You get people who will throw it out there: ‘Don’t forget, if you ever want to do something (with Hernandez), let me know,’” Zduriencik said, without mentioning the Yankees specifically.
“It’s more of an inquiry than anything else . . . People are courteous. They understand where we stand. We’ve been pretty strong on our desire to keep him here.”