Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez is a six-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner, and he is unquestionably considered one of the best pitchers in the game. He could even be on his way to Cooperstown one day if he continues to dominate opposing hitters late into his career.
However, the 29-year-old ace has one glaring omission on his resume—a postseason appearance. He plans to change that during the 2016 season.
Hernandez addressed his personal postseason drought at a Mariners workout, per Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times: "It's always motivating me every year, trying to do something special and make the playoffs. It drives me crazy. I've never made the playoffs in the big leagues. I can't wait to be there."
Hernandez isn't the only one in the Mariners organization who's using the postseason drought as motivation. Manager Scott Servais discussed the juxtaposition of Hernandez's career and the lack of team success when looking ahead to the season, per Divish:
Felix has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs, and it's time. We've got a lot of work to do to get there. And he knows that as well. For a player to have that kind of career and to not have pitched in the playoffs yet, it's up to us to make sure we get the pieces around him and it's up to him to pull a few guys along with him. It's going to be a joint effort.
Seattle hasn't reached the postseason since 2001, and those 14 seasons represent the longest drought in the league. From a production standpoint, it is hard to blame Hernandez for that:
|Felix Hernandez's Career Stats|
Despite the strong numbers, Hernandez wasn't pleased with his individual performance in 2015, per Divish: "I was [inconsistent]. I've worked on my mechanics a little bit. I did the same physical program I've done the last two years. I can't wait to throw my bullpen and see how it feels."
Many will be anxious to see how Hernandez feels this season.
Former outfield coach Andy Van Slyke appeared on a St. Louis radio station and questioned the pitcher's health even though he reached the 200-inning plateau for the eighth straight year, per Divish: "He also lamented the health of Hernandez and its effect on the team. Van Slyke said that the Mariners' ace was pitching with ulnar collateral ligament that had deteriorated by 25 percent and there was a general concern it could snap at any moment."
However, head trainer Rick Griffin was skeptical of Van Slyke's claims. "All pitchers, especially those who have thrown 2,000 innings, have some damage in their ligament," he said, per Divish. "He has not missed a start because of his elbow in the entire time he's been here with us. We do everything we can to keep him on the field. I don't know where that percent came from."
Hernandez also dismissed the notion, per Divish: "No, no, not true. I'm fine. He said a lot stuff that's not true. ... I know you guys said last year at the end of the year I was hurt, but I wasn't. I'm fine. Physically, I'm fine. I'm ready to throw."
But there is a noticeable difference in the overpowering pitcher's appearance heading into the 2016 campaign. Divish noted Hernandez showed up to workouts with his usual black hair dyed blond as well as blond chin hair that was "now more than an inch in length."
Hernandez addressed the change, per Divish. "I was tired of seeing my black hair in the mirror all the time, so I decided to go blond," he said. "I'm just trying something different. Yeah, I'm going to keep it for the entire season."
Perhaps the new hair will give Hernandez just the change in karma he needs to finally reach the postseason with what could be a strong contender behind him.
Jonah Keri of Sports Illustrated listed the Mariners as the 11th-best team in baseball in his power rankings at the start of spring training. He particularly liked the new players the front office added in the offseason to a team that was 76-86 in 2015.
The problem for the Mariners is a strong American League West division that features two playoff teams from last year in the Texas Rangers (seventh in Keri's rankings) and Houston Astros (third in Keri's rankings).
However, the projected bottom of the division is soft, with the Oakland Athletics (24th in Keri's rankings) and the Los Angeles Angels (21st in Keri's rankings), which will help the Mariners in the wild-card race against teams from the American League East and Central who won't get to play Los Angeles or Oakland as much.
If the new players fulfill expectations and Hernandez performs like he does seemingly every season, Seattle and its superstar ace may finally reach the playoffs for the first time since Lou Piniella was the team's manager.