King Felix too valuable to be traded yet

I was interviewing Felix Hernandez on Wednesday, asking if he might win the Cy Young Award again this year (“It could happen,” he told me), when I switched subjects and somehow tripped over my favorite baseball word.

King Felix, classy guy that he is, helped me out.

“During the offseason,” I started, “there was so much talk about, ‘Would the Mariners consider … ’”

Awkward pause.

“Trade?” Felix guessed.

Yes. Right. Trade. Many of us are fascinated by the possibility that the Seattle Mariners will trade … you.

And now that you mention it, well, what do you think about it?

“I don’t know, man,” Hernandez said, smiling. “Not my decision. It’s out of my hands. I want to stay here. I’m happy here. I’m part of the Seattle Mariners. That’s all I can say.”

If you were the general manager, would you trade you?

“No,” he answered, matter-of-factly. “But this is a business.”

I wouldn’t trade him, either. Not now, at least. Franchise pitchers are too hard to find, and the Mariners should be a competitive outfit before his contract expires in 2014.

But right now, here’s the reality: Arguably the league’s best pitcher is employed by one of the league’s worst teams, even if the Mariners did just sweep the Tigers in Detroit. As long as that remains the case, speculation will persist, particularly given the uncertainty over the health of New York Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes. If you are a Mariners fan and feel squeamish about this, I suggest you write a nice letter to Safeco Field and ask your favorite team to win more ballgames.

Hernandez has been so good, for so long, that it’s easy to forget he just turned 25. But don’t confuse him for a kid. He’s married with two children of his own. He’s a national hero in his native Venezuela. He signed a $78 million contract before last season. He would prefer not to end his career with “only one” Cy Young Award. He is a smart man, very aware of what’s going on around him.

He knows that trade rumors could linger if the team keeps struggling. But he’s determined not to allow any of it to become a distraction. He said that he will stay focused, no matter how the year unfolds. He observed how well then-teammate Cliff Lee handled the scrutiny during the first half of last season; that experience will help Hernandez now.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, “but I’m prepared.”

I polled a number of executives around the league on Wednesday, and the overwhelming opinion among them is that Hernandez won’t be dealt this season. The Mariners’ ability to control his contract for three more years is a key factor. “He’s too good and too young and too valuable,” one assistant general manager noted.

A trade would likely have a devastating effect on attendance and fan optimism. And yet, all it takes is one really desperate buyer. What if general manager Jack Zduriencik is approached with an offer like the one the Texas Rangers received for Mark Teixeira – the one that brought Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, and, by extension, a pennant?

During a recent interview with KIRO-AM (710) in Seattle, Zduriencik was asked if any calls were coming into his office about Hernandez. “Have I had calls in the past? Yes, I have,” he told the “Brock and Salk” show. “Have I had any recently? Not necessarily.” Hmm. Not necessarily? What exactly does that mean? Zduriencik went on to talk about his desire for Hernandez to remain with the organization for years to come.

The GM didn’t exactly say that he would rather hike barefoot to the top of Mount Rainier than trade his ace. Zduriencik wouldn’t comment on Hernandez for the record when asked on Wednesday. If you want to read into that, I suppose you could. But I think it’s more important to note that Hernandez has a measure of control in all of this, too.

Felix has a 10-team no-trade clause, including many of the large-market clubs with the means to acquire a pitcher of his ilk. If he doesn’t want to pitch for the Yankees, Mets, or Red Sox, he doesn’t have to pitch for the Yankees, Mets, or Red Sox. He’s a year-round Seattle resident. “I’m a Seattle Mariner,” he said.

Look at the cases in which recent Cy Young winners have been dealt: Roy Halladay and Zack Greinke actively sought trades; Jake Peavy waived his no-trade clause, after initially resisting a move to Chicago; Johan Santana would not have been dealt to the Mets without his agreement on a contract extension; Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia, much closer to free agency than Hernandez is now, didn’t insist on staying in Cleveland. Power to the pitchers. Hernandez has that, too.

King Felix spoke optimistically about the Mariners’ future, saying, “We’re going to get better. We’ve got some good young guys here. We’ve got talent here.” He’s been so impressed with 22-year-old starter Michael Pineda that he compared the right-hander to perhaps the most dazzling pitcher in the game today.

“Me,” Hernandez said, smiling. “I tell him that all the time. He’s going to get better and better. He’s going to be special.”

For Zduriencik, trading Hernandez would be a self-defeating move. Every fifth day, Felix makes the team more watchable and gives Seattle a strong chance to win. Take away the excitement – and the victories – and the Mariners could go from bad to historically bad. And when teams are historically bad, people can get fired.

So, I expect we will see Hernandez in Seattle at this time next year, too. It is, after all, where he wants to be. And that matters more than you might think.