Keeping the kid gloves on

For his 21st birthday, Felix Hernandez already knows what he wants from the Seattle Mariners.

"My slider," he said.

He misses it. See, Hernandez, who turned 20 a little more than a week ago and has the bravado to nickname himself "El Cartelua" – which, for lack of a better word, means "badass" – is not allowed to throw the pitch. The Mariners, just like every other team, have seen dozens of pitchers' careers wrecked because of arm injuries. They want him to throw his 97-mph fastball. They love his changeup. And they think his curveball might be the best pitch he throws.

But no slider. Not yet. Not even if it is a 90-mph mirage.

"Hell, yeah, I want to throw that pitch," Hernandez said. "They don't let me, though. They tell my I'm too young, that it's bad for my elbow. I told them I want to throw it."

Begrudgingly, Hernandez complies, because though he has the orneriness of a star, he's not a malcontent. Hernandez understands that he poses the toughest question in baseball: How do you handle a young pitcher?

There's a great acronym the Baseball Prospectus crew coined, TNSTAAPP: There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. Taken literally, of course, it isn't true. But at its base, the edict makes sense: So many young, hot-shot pitchers – can't-miss guys, according to scouts and statisticians alike – flounder when they make it to the big leagues, or don't make it at all.

Maybe they threw too many pitches as an amateur. Maybe their mechanics were slightly off. Maybe they didn't have the mental faculties to succeed. Teams run studies on maybes, and the second they think they've got it, another kid blows out his elbow.

The answer: There is no right way.

So the Mariners are taking the easiest route: caution. They do not want to be the team that screwed up Felix Hernandez. He is probably the best young pitcher since Dwight Gooden, and that is more than an opinion. It is the viewpoint of general managers, scouts, coaches and the game's playing elders who remember Gooden as Doctor K, not a convicted felon.

"He's got a very high ceiling," Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said.

The natural link is to Gooden, because both were magnificent as 19-year-olds, with Hernandez carrying a 2.67 ERA in his 12 big-league starts last season. Plenty of other names float next to Hernandez's: Roger Clemens because of the heavy fastball, or Pedro Martinez because of the wicked changeup, or Bert Blyleven because of the curve, or Bartolo Colon because of the stocky body (Hernandez has gained around 60 pounds since 2002).

"I don't like comparisons," Bavasi said. "He's got a high ceiling. I'll leave it at that."

No one knew exactly how high when the Mariners spent $710,000 to sign Hernandez, a Venezuela native, on July 4, 2002. Hernandez started with 69 innings in A ball his first season, and as an 18-year-old he went 14-4 between high-A and Double-A. Entering this season, Hernandez had thrown less than 400 professional innings, and the Mariners had allowed him to throw just two complete games.

"We'll let him take his time," Bavasi said. "We just want to help him through his first full major-league season."

It's not off to a rousing start. In his first start, Hernandez walked four in five innings but escaped with one run allowed. Cleveland knocked him around for five runs in 4 2/3 innings last week, when Hernandez walked four again. Tonight, he goes for his first victory of the season at home against Texas.

Inefficiency was the problem for Hernandez in his first two starts. He topped 100 pitches in each, and that's the mark at which prudence takes precedence. None of Hernandez's starts last season reached 120 pitches, the ascribed danger zone today for young pitchers. Even in games he could have finished – an eight-inning, 115-pitch gem against Minnesota, or a seven-inning, 107-pitch domination of Oakland – Hernandez got the hook.

"We're not protecting him from the hype," Bavasi said. "It's so he can get his work done. Nothing beyond that. Just that he's able to enjoy his career like he should be able to, not put up with too much nonsense. Yeah, we'll be protective of him with regards to pitch counts because of his age. But it's all part of a plan."

And that's the frustrating part about rearing young pitchers: All they can be is a plan, and plans are more optimism than reality. No one knows whether keeping Hernandez from unleashing his slider will prevent an injury in a year or three or 10, just as no one knows whether allowing him to throw it now might help the Mariners win another game or two. It's all hypothetical, and that's what makes Hernandez antsy.

"I just want to throw," he said. "That's a baseball game. I mean, I'm cool with that if it's what they want. I have to be.

"I'm just playing. Just having fun. Just pitching."

Just waiting one more year to see if he can raise a toast on his 21st birthday to the slider.

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