"I don't think they're a playoff team now, and I don't think they're close," said a National League executive. "They just don't have a lot of impact guys, and that Cano contract is going to eat into what you can spend. It's a tough road. I think they can win. I just don't think it'll be in the next year or two."
After all these years, Hernandez still elicits a special buzz every fifth day. Zunino sensed it when he strapped on his shin guards and caught King Felix for the first time on June 26, 2013. It was just another day at the office for Hernandez, who struck out 11 batters in a loss to Pittsburgh.
"His stuff is amazing, and he has that instinct where he wants to put hitters away," Zunino said. "There's definitely a different level for him. He always has that extra gear to get out of trouble or make that big pitch."
Hernandez is a different pitcher than when he broke in at age 19. His fastball velocity has declined from 96 mph to 92 mph, and he is more smitten each year with his changeup, a pitch that he developed in 2009. He throws it anywhere from 89-91 mph, so it's almost indistinguishable from his fastball until it's dive-bombing through the zone.
Like Verlander, King Felix has learned from experience that radar gun-induced vanity and winning can conflict at times.
"I'm more mature and a little bit more smart," he said, "and I know what I have to do. I know the hitters, and I don't have to throw that hard to get people out."
Hernandez's competitiveness will never wane. He lobbies so incessantly and vocally to stay in games that McClendon has learned that the path of least resistance is to signal for the reliever on his way out of the dugout. Nothing short-circuits an argument like rendering the debate moot.
That internal motor keeps churning beyond the playing field. The Mariners have a training room competition called the "tape toss," in which they take the ends of tape rolls used to wrap wrists and ankles and chuck them into a recycling bin from a distance. No one keeps a definitive log, but reliever Charlie Furbush said it's uncanny how often Hernandez wins.
When Hernandez strolls into the clubhouse with his diamond earrings and tattoos, talking good-natured smack, it's clear that he's no diva superstar.
"He's a good teammate, and that's the ultimate compliment you can give any baseball player," McClendon said.
In 2005, when Hernandez was still a phenom, Jamie Moyer and Eddie Guardado helped teach him how to act like a big leaguer. Now he's determined to pass along his accumulated wisdom to Walker, Elias and Seattle's other young pitchers.
Furbush, born on April 11, 1986, is three days younger than Hernandez, but he still regards Seattle's ace as an elder and a role model.
"We always joke around, and I'm like, 'Man, imagine being 19 and being in the big leagues,'" Furbush said. "I don't know if my mind was even ready for that. He is probably the most consistent guy I've ever played with. He comes in every day with a big smile on his face, and he's willing to help anybody. He does it on the field and off the field."