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Is Hernandez too good, too soon?

by Jim Callis
July 29, 2004

CHICAGO—Felix Hernandez seems almost too good to be true.

He made his pro debut in 2003 as the youngest player (17) in the short-season Northwest League, nearly leading the circuit in wins. He finished the season by dominating low Class A Midwest League hitters for two starts before heading to instructional league, where his stuff was so crazy good that teammates wondered where he could have come from.

The Mariners conceded there was no reason to send him back to the MWL, so he opened 2004 as the youngest player in the high Class A California League, where most of the hitters are of legal drinking age and most of the ballparks aren't pitcher-friendly. Hernandez responded by allowing three runs or fewer in 13 of his 15 starts, so it was time to find another challenge.

Texas League hitters weren't up to the task in his first two Double-A outings, as he surrendered a total of just three runs. Then it was off to the Futures Game in Houston, where Hernandez required all of seven pitches to work a 1-2-3 second inning during which he struck out Mets third baseman David Wright with mid-90s fastballs and an 84 mph curve.

Hernandez got beat up in his fourth Double-A start, giving up six runs in 2 2/3 innings against Frisco, but that was an aberration. His pro record stood at 17-6, 2.77 with 224 strikeouts in 182 innings, and he was two levels shy of the majors at three months past his 18th birthday.

"I haven't seen anyone else with stuff like that," said Diamondbacks outfield prospect Conor Jackson, who has had the misfortune of facing Hernandez in three different leagues. "His fastball's not even his best pitch. It's that slider or curveball, whatever he calls it. It's filthy. You don't see the seams until the last second, and then he comes in at 98 on your hands."

How good can Hernandez be? He's baseball's best pitching prospect and his ceiling appears limitless.

A more important question might be whether he's too good, too soon.

Handle With Care

Most 18-year-old pro pitchers are just coming out of high school and pitch no more than 40 or 50 innings in Rookie ball. Hernandez, by contrast, is on pace to log roughly 150 innings at much more demanding levels. The Mariners have made it a priority to handle his precious right arm with care.

"We have to determine what level of competition he needs to be at to enhance his ability," said Benny Looper, Seattle's vice president of player development and scouting. "And obviously, one of the considerations with him is at 18, how many innings should he pitch.

"We're going to give him some extra off days. We have a number in mind to hold him to. Once he get there, he's through. If he's there and San Antonio gets to the playoffs, he's not going to pitch in the playoffs."

Looper wouldn't specify Hernandez' innings threshold because the Mariners haven't told him yet. But it sounds like even though the Missions are leading their division in the second half, their fans won't see Hernandez in the postseason.

Seattle won't let him throw a slider yet and started the season by keeping him on an 80-pitch limit—since raised to 100. Three of his Cal League starts came after six days of rest. His Futures Game appearance fell on what would have been his day to start at San Antonio, so he sandwiched his single inning between four days off on each side.

The Mariners have to worry about Hernandez' offseason as well. He's under control to Venezuela's Lara Cardinals, for whom he pitched 28 innings last winter. Because he's a native and won't exceed 180 regular-season innings, Seattle can't officially restrict Hernandez' workload.

Fortunately, the Mariners have a working agreement with Lara and the two teams should be able to work together. Gary Wheelock, the pitching coach for Seattle's Arizona League affiliate, will monitor him while serving the same role in Venezuela.

Will He See Triple-A?

The last 18-year-old who dominated the minors like this was Dwight Gooden in 1983. BA's Minor League Player of the Year, Gooden spent the entire season in high Class A before making the Mets' Opening Day roster in 1984.

Gooden unquestionably was ready for the majors, winning Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in his first two years. But his arm might not have been ready for the strain of pitching at the game's highest level.

The only teenager to work 100 big league innings in a season since 1975, Gooden pitched a total of 1,291 before hurting his shoulder at age 24—after which he never was as brilliant again. His drug problems certainly didn't help, but all those innings likely deserve more of the blame.

If Hernandez comes to big league camp next year and blows away hitters, the temptation to keep him in Seattle could be too strong.

"For me, the ideal circumstance with Felix is that he finishes the year in Double-A and begins next year in Triple-A," Looper said. "How much Triple-A experience does he get? I don't know.

"He may pitch so well that he forces us to put him on the big league club."

You can reach Jim Callis by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com.

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