Dealing King Felix not so crazy

Trading Felix Hernandez for right package actually makes sense for Seattle Mariners

The Mariners in recent weeks touched base with the Cubs on shortstop Starlin Castro, asked the Royals about designated hitter Billy Butler, talked to other clubs about other hitters.

None of the talks progressed, according to major league sources. Virtually every team contacted the Cubs about Castro after a published report said he was available (he wasn’t). Butler, too, remains relatively untouchable (he’s under club-friendly salaries through 2015, and the Royals consider him a core piece.)

The point is not that a trade is about to happen; the Mariners just were doing their due diligence, conducting their normal pre-July business. No, the point is that the Mariners are in position to make a trade happen — if they choose.

Call it “Michael Pineda: The Sequel.”

I’ve written before about the logic of the M’s trading ace right-hander Felix Hernandez, prompting a flurry of “Hands off!” missives from the Pacific Northwest — as if King Felix is guaranteed to stay in Seattle beyond the expiration of his contract in 2014.

Well, trading Felix for the right package still would make sense, given the Mariners’ offensive deficiencies. But if the M’s prefer, they can deal from a different position of strength, offering one or more of their big young arms for a hitter of comparable age and promise.

Think the next Castro — someone like Rangers Double-A shortstop Jurickson Profar or Orioles Double-A shortstop Manny Machado.

Before fans of the Rangers and Orioles convulse — the default position for many fans these days when some “biased” writer suggests trading one of their favorite team’s players — do a little research on the Mariners’ top two young pitchers, Triple-A lefty Danny Hultzen and Double-A righty Taijuan Walker.

They’re only two of the best pitching prospects in the game — and Double-A left-hander James Paxton isn’t far behind them.

Now, allow me to save Mariners fans from their own convulsions; I can practically hear them pounding away on their keyboards and touchscreens, typing, “We’re going to sign Felix, keep all the kids and win the 2015 World Series!”

Not with the current offense, you won’t.

The Mariners entered Wednesday ranked 11th in the American League in runs per game — which actually is something of a breakthrough for them, seeing as they were last in each of the previous three seasons, and next-to-last the year before that.

Some of the Mariners’ young hitters — Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak — could turn out to be decent, maybe better than decent. But Saunders currently has the highest on-base percentage in that group: .327. And Montero might be the only future star.

If, a year ago at this time, I had suggested that the Mariners trade Pineda, the reaction surely would have been venomous. Well, how did that turn out? Pineda brought back Montero. Even if Pineda recovers from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, the deal should prove quite good for the Mariners.

M’s general manager Jack Zduriencik has made other big moves, too. His trade of Cliff Lee to the Rangers will prove a winner only if Smoak develops into a quality major leaguer. His three-team, 12-player deal with the Mets and Indians proved largely a wash for the M’s due to center fielder Franklin Gutierrez’s physical problems. But at least Zduriencik isn’t afraid.

He shouldn’t be afraid now, either. People keep talking about the Mariners moving in the fences at Safeco Field — loser’s talk, regardless of whether the idea has merit. OK, maybe free-agent sluggers would be more inclined to sign with the M’s if Safeco’s dimensions were more hitter-friendly. But the 2001 Mariners led the majors in scoring, averaging 5.72 runs per game. Try emulating that team, and stop blaming the ballpark.

Try finding better hitters.

King Felix, who is under contract for $18.5 million this season, $19.5 million next season and $20 million in ’14, cannot be untouchable. No doubt the Mariners would love to extend him; Hernandez would be a prized free agent, hitting the market before he turned 29. But what kind of contract would Hernandez require? Six years, $155 million? Seven years, $180 million? How do you think such a deal would turn out?

Of course, the problem with trading Hernandez — besides his ability to block deals to 10 teams — is that few clubs are willing to take on high salaries and part with premium prospects.

Maybe Zduriencik wouldn’t get the desired return; that’s what happened when he discussed Hernandez with the Red Sox at the deadline in 2009. But King Felix would be available for three pennant races. Assuming he is healthy and pitching well — he recently went 11 days between starts due to back trouble, and his 3.52 ERA would be his highest since 2007 — some team would jump.

Let’s go back to the Royals. No, they couldn’t afford Hernandez’s contract. But they could send back Butler, get cash in the deal and include say, top outfield prospect Wil Myers and/or top pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi.

Think the Mariners wouldn’t be tempted by such an offer? Think the Royals wouldn’t want King Felix through 2014 at say, $12 million to $14 million per season, even for a steep acquisition price?

I’m not saying either team would do it. I’m just saying that it’s the kind of concept that GMs kick around — along with dozens of other scenarios at this time of year.

For Zduriencik, the goal should be clear:

“Pineda: The Sequel.”

Pick a bullet, and fire.

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