Mariners' Hernandez matures at ripe age of 24

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! SportsMarch 13, 2011
Mariners' Hernandez matures at ripe age of 24
Felix Hernandez longs to play in front of crowds, but he loves Seattle

PEORIA, Ariz. – He's still just 24. Think about that. Felix Hernandez(notes) has permeated baseball's conscious for a decade now. He threw 90 mph at 14 years old, fetched nearly $1 million to sign 16, slayed the minor leagues through the rest of his teenage years, wore a Seattle Mariners uniform at 19, got fat at 21, fit at 22, dominated at 23 and won the American League Cy Young at 24. And only now is he entering his supposed prime, the time when the mental and physical coalesce into 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds of right-handed unfairness.

"Ten years?" Hernandez said Saturday afternoon. "It feels like I've been around for 20."

This thought often enters Hernandez's head. He has accomplished so much in his first decade in baseball – hit his profession's individual peak, got married, had kids, mastered English, moved from Venezuela to Seattle – that when he asks himself what's next, he struggles to answer. There are the obvious. Stay healthy. Win a World Series. Hit free agency in four years and tack a nine-figure deal on top of his current $78 million contract.

Hernandez keeps coming back to one point, though, harping on it because it speaks to him. He wants to be the best pitcher in baseball. Last spring, Hernandez said he wanted to win the Cy Young, and he did. And now, ready to cross the 20,000-pitch mark for his career, he's setting a new threshold. He loves Roy Halladay(notes) and Tim Lincecum(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes) and CC Sabathia(notes) and Jon Lester(notes). He just won't stand behind them anymore.

"This is my time," Hernandez said, and he needed to say no more. Don't mistake his brusqueness for bombast. These are the years in which Hernandez can distinguish himself as the best pitcher of his generation, and it's why, even in a meaningless spring outing Saturday morning, he grimaced after giving up a run, walked back into the dugout and told his brother, Moises, "My slider sucks."

Moises Hernandez is two years older than Felix. He signed with Baltimore as a teenager, got sent to Atlanta as compensation for the Orioles signing pitching coach Leo Mazzone, blew out his shoulder and finds himself in Mariners camp mostly as a favor to Felix. They commiserate daily, and Moises sees in his brother a drive for greatness to match his prodigious talent. Growing up, Felix always tried to match Moises. When Moises threw hard, he tried to throw harder. When Moises played pickup games, Felix tagged along. Even now, the major league ace will come to the minor league wannabe and solicit advice.

"I don't know what to say," Moises said.

Watching Felix, even for a professional like his brother, is a lesson in power pitching. From his delivery, in which his hips pirouette so he's facing left field before he unleashes a torrent of energy toward home plate, to his follow through, with a roundhouse leg kick, Hernandez connotes deleterious intentions. He loves working the inside corner of the plate, throws 94 mph, ranks second among all pitchers over the last two seasons in wild pitches and emulsifies those three factors into a pot of intimidation.

Hernandez spent Saturday morning on a back field pitching against a group of Mariners minor leaguers instead of taking his regularly scheduled start against Oakland. He faced the A's in his first appearance of the spring, and the Mariners didn't want to give them too good a look at Hernandez, though let's be honest: The best hitters in the major leagues could study as much video of him as is available, face him 100 times and still come to the plate with nary a clue as to what they're going to do.

Somehow, Steve Baron, a 20-year-old catcher, did what only a handful of hitters have done to Hernandez: smack two doubles off him in one game. Both were gap shots, the last on a boring fastball that could've just as easily sawed his bat into two pieces. He wasn't frightened, perhaps because he knew no better.

"Hey, Baron," Hernandez yelled after the game. "How'd you hit that ball, man? It was a good pitch."

"I have no idea," Baron said. "That curveball the pitch before – I thought it was going to hit my head."

"Good, man," Hernandez said. "Attaboy."

Hernandez also faced Mike Carp(notes) and Michael Saunders(notes), two kids still trying to stick with the major league club. It's funny, of course, that those kids are, respectively, 83 and 225 days younger than Hernandez, and that he is the second-most tenured player on the Mariners' roster, behind Ichiro Suzuki(notes). He's got just two years on James Jones, an outfielder who was in Class A last season and who struck out twice against Hernandez, the second time in inauspicious fashion.

Minor league games are played without umpires. The calls are the catcher's to make. On a 3-2 pitch, Hernandez threw a slider to the inside corner against the left-handed Jones. He took the pitch, tossed his bat and readied to go to first base. Catcher Chris Gimenez(notes) called him back. The ball was borderline, so they split the difference with another pitch. Hernandez fanned him on a changeup.

"Two-seam, actually," Jones said.

Nope. It was a changeup.

"That was a changeup?" Jones asked.

He'd never seen one like it.

"He's just so good," Jones said.

Accordingly, the rote rumors attach themselves to Hernandez. The New York Yankees covet him. So, by extension, do the Boston Red Sox. And every other big-money, talent-rich team. Even though Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has reiterated he has no intention of trading Hernandez, the fact remains: A pitcher of his caliber could fetch such a windfall of talent, not listening is irresponsible, and so Zduriencik will field calls as long as the Mariners continue to struggle.

For his part, Hernandez recognized this possibility and negotiated into his contract a 10-team no-trade clause that includes New York and Boston. It was the same tack Zack Greinke(notes) took in choosing teams for his no-trade: include the ones against whom leverage could mean a huge extension in exchange for dropping the clause.

Hernandez can't lie: He loves the idea of the AL East, under the lights at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park instead of in front of empty seats in Oakland or Texas or, on some nights, Seattle. "I'd love to be in that position playing against the Yankees or Boston," he said. "The field is always packed. The adrenaline is up and up. It's the best place to pitch."

And yet if told tomorrow the Mariners had a deal with either team, Hernandez said, "I'd say no. I hear it all the time, but I'd love to stay here. I like Seattle, like the organization, like all the people I'm around, and I live in Seattle. We've got a lot of talent here – young talent. We could be good. If [Erik] Bedard stays healthy, and [Jason] Vargas is pretty good, [Doug] Fister's pretty good, [Michael] Piñeda is big and has great stuff. And I'm OK."

If last year was merely OK, hitters ought to start shuddering because Hernandez is determined to be great. Even if it was against minor leaguers Saturday, he turned into an animal in his fourth and final inning. Carp struck out on three pitches, Jones K'd twice in the same at-bat and Kyle Seager whiffed for good measure.

Felix Hernandez walked off the field this time satisfied with himself. He didn't have to ask his brother for approval. He didn't have to ask anyone. As his second decade in baseball starts, he's trying to make sure it's even better than the first.