The Mariners have gone through various incarnations since then, while the Angels, Rangers and Athletics have taken turns leading the pack in the AL West. During his tenure in Seattle, Hernandez has played for seven managers and thrown to an assortment of catchers such as Kenji Johjima and Miguel Olivo. He watched Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien come and go, Adam Jones get traded to Baltimore, Chone Figgins fail to live up to a big contract and Ken Griffey Jr. hop in his car and take a long cross-country drive home without saying goodbye after returning for a second tour of duty with the Mariners.
The Mariners haven't finished above .500 since 2009, but they made a statement during the offseason when they signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal. It was a major leap of faith by ownership and general manager Jack Zduriencik, given that several young hitters who are supposed to complement Cano have been a mixed bag of promise and underachievement.
While Kyle Seager has a chance to be a top-10 third baseman, Brad Miller is a scout's favorite and catcher Mike Zunino has shown power and the willingness to work on his rough edges behind the plate, the leash is shorter for Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders, players who have given the Mariners tantalizing glimpses only to fail to put it together for extended periods. Jesus Montero, acquired from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda trade, needs to show a lot in a hurry if he wants to avoid being labeled a bust.
"Someone needs to step forward and be the guy they need him to be," said an AL personnel man. "At this point, I think the most you can hope for from some of those guys is for them to be average regulars."
Nevertheless, it's hard to rule out Seattle making a postseason run in the not-too-distant future. For starters, the expanded postseason format leads to much greater opportunity than in Ernie Banks' and Fergie Jenkins' heyday with the Cubs. Since Hernandez's rookie year in 2005, 26 of the 30 big league teams have been to the playoffs at least once. The only exceptions: Seattle, Miami, Toronto and Kansas City.
The Mariners also have a solid pitching foundation in place, with a rotation of Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and youngsters Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and James Paxton. In some ways the Mariners are an AL parallel to the Mets, who have reason for hope if Matt Harvey returns from his Tommy John surgery and heads a rotation that includes Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee. The Mets have a position player pillar in David Wright, their Robinson Cano, but they have had difficulty developing a core of solid regulars to surround him.
ESPN's Keith Law ranks Seattle's farm system No. 21 in the majors and Baseball America has the M's at No. 25, so there's not much impact talent on the horizon. Zduriencik is routinely mentioned in "general managers on the hot seat" speculation, and the pressure was ratcheted up considerably when the Mariners shelled out all that money for Cano.