Hernandez Forces Mariners Into Tough Decisions
By Alan Schwarz
PEORIA, Ariz.—Michael Morse remembers the first time he saw Felix Hernandez. It was in San Antonio last July, not long after the Mariners' top pitching prospect—soon to be coronated baseball's best as well—was promoted to Double-A.
Morse took his shortstop position behind Hernandez as he wound up to face the first El Paso batter. An hour before, Morse had asked Hernandez, still a baby of 18, how long he would last today. "Easy five," Hernandez replied with a knowing smile. "Probably seven."
Remember, many minor league starters lack the command, let alone the confidence, to last past five innings—particularly in their first start in Double-A, the leap that separates the prospects from the pushovers. "OK, hotshot," Morse remembers thinking. "Let's see what you got."
Pssfffffft! Hernandez' first pitch sailed from his hand and crashed into the strike zone exactly where he wanted—belt high, inside—as the El Paso batter flinched right out of his sanitaries. It was only the beginning. Hernandez took the ball back from his catcher with a snap of his glove, stalked back atop the mound, and patrolled the game with the calm of an executioner. Stiletto fastballs. Cruel changeups. Hammer curves. And in the end, Hernandez indeed lasted seven, still pumping 96. The great ones just know.
"I tell you what," Morse says, "he left a lot of people remembering who he was. From that first pitch, you knew: This kid's got something."
What this kid's got is, quite simply, the best package of teenaged pitching talent the minors have seen in years, perhaps since Dwight Gooden blazed through in 1983. He brings it all: power, precision, presence . . . and all of it precocious, as the kid won't turn 19 until April 8. But while there had been talk of the Venezuelan phenom breaking camp with the pitching-poor Mariners and becoming their rebuilding poster boy, he almost certainly will celebrate that 19th birthday at Triple-A Tacoma, just 30 miles and one phone call away from Seattle.
The best player in the minor leagues will not be there for long. Most Mariners personnel agree that had Hernandez been three years older, his ability easily would have landed him a rotation spot. As it stands now, the great debate is not over how well this stallion can run, but when he should be let out of the gates.
"We can't protect this kid forever," Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price says. "But right now, we can."
Mike Hargrove remembers the first time he saw Felix Hernandez. It was during the club's initial spring bullpen session this February, with Hargrove, newly hired to skipper the Mariners, checking out his young pitchers in Peoria. He saw the stuff, the body language, the charisma of a future star. For once, true advertising.
"Very rarely, when people tell you about players and when you read scouting reports, do they live up to and exceed what you've read," says Hargrove, who even more rarely gushes about young players. "He had exceeded what I'd been told. The kid's electric.
"It's easy to like a 98-mile-an-hour fastball, but then he's got good action on his changeup, he'll throw it for strikes, he keeps it down in the zone. Everything he did just kind of made the interest level go up a bit. Very rarely do I sit in a bullpen and it's fun to watch someone throw. It's fun to watch this kid throw."
Even with high-priced sluggers Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson slipping on Seattle unis for the first time, Hernandez was the talk of early Mariners camp. As loose as his billowy pants, he was followed by gawking fans whenever he trod from one back field to another. They gasped when his Pedro sidearm sling let go of one fastball—not yet even at full strength—that splintered a hitter's bat into three pieces during BP. "Holy moley," one declared.
Hernandez betrayed his youth when exhibition games began, particularly during his first start against Kansas City, when he excitedly overthrew himself out of the game after just two innings. He bounced back well in later appearances, but that outing gave almost relieved Mariners brass evidence that their first instinct—to start off Hernandez in the minor leagues—was the right one.
Hernandez, who has beefed up his 6-foot-3 frame to 224 pounds, threw 149 innings in Class A and Double-A last year, a relatively high total for an 18-year-old who, if American, would have been only a high school senior. (He was the youngest player in both the California and Texas leagues.) Even though he dominated to the tune of a 14-4, 2.95 combined record and 172 strikeouts, he still pitched just five months under closely controlled conditions that the majors do not necessarily provide.
"We feel like we can take him beyond (149 innings) this year, but still, you don't want to overload him with 220, 230—that's what could happen if he was in a major league rotation and he started every fifth day," Price says. In the minors, Seattle can have give him extra rest between outings and keep them shorter, with less concern about taxing the rest of the starters and bullpen. That way, when he gets called up—and he will, probably by the all-star break—he might remain strong and safe into his first September.
What does Hernandez say about all this? Very little, and not just because he speaks little English. His goals are only "To get to the big leagues, to keep working the way I've been working," he says through a club interpreter." Is he ready now? "Yeah, I'm ready." Why? "It's my confidence. I feel great."
Yet Hernandez says he's also happy to start in the minor leagues, which is just as well. When it comes to 18-year-old pitchers, Hargrove is understandably gunshy, given that in 1974 he played on the Rangers with a kid named David Clyde—the ultimate teenaged phenom-turned-flop. "There's a case of a guy getting absolutely reamed," says Hargrove, adding that Clyde quickly fell into the wrong crowd on a veteran club.
Both Hargrove and Price say that while today's players are generally far more conscientious, and they have no specific concerns with Hernandez, they want to err on the side of muting the mind-bending hype that starting an 18-year-old Hernandez with the big club would bring. No pitcher that young has made a club out of spring training since the Yankees' Jose Rijo in 1984. While bringing Hernandez up after a few months could have economic benefits as well—
he would probably become eligible for arbitration after the 2008 season, rather than 2007—Price sees potential costs beyond monetary.
"We have to always be conscientious of his mental preparation," Price says. "I don't know what I would do at 18 or 19 years old, being in the major leagues, having money, having notoriety and constantly being told how special I am, and how I would deal with that. I think that recent history would suggest that it's very difficult to stay grounded as a 19- or 20-year-old major league player—NBA basketball player, or hockey, or whatever it may be.
"We do need to take the prep time to say, ‘Look, you do really need to stay grounded here.' And we do need to put somewhat of a barrier around him so he doesn't get influenced in a negative way."
Felix Hernandez remembers the first time he saw . . . well, Felix Hernandez, at least the pitcher we know today. As soon as he became more of a pitcher than a shortstop at age 8 or so, back in his hometown of Valencia, he sensed he had a professional future. "I knew I pitched well enough," he says.
Hernandez grew up the youngest among a sister and two brothers, one of whom, Moises, is now a pitcher deep in the Orioles chain. Their father, Felix Sr., was a truck driver; their mother, Miriam, a homemaker. They were middle class. Unlike Mariano Rivera and Sammy Sosa, who grew up fashioning gloves from milk cartons, "my father always gave to me," Felix Jr. recalls. His walls, meanwhile, were adorned with posters of fellow Venezuelan hurler Freddy Garcia, then of the Mariners.
Scouts soon saw Felix with similar potential, and first approached him at 14. "They said to keep working the way I was working," he remembers. Did he run home to tell his parents? "Nah," Hernandez recalls. "Just normal."
Hernandez played on an amateur team named Flor Amarillo (the Yellow Flowers), which played games only on Thursdays. With his 16th birthday (and therefore signing eligibility) approaching during the spring of 2002, he began being pursued by the Yankees, Braves, Rockies and Mariners. Seattle won out with a $710,000 bonus offer in large part because of the trust that scouts Bob Engle and Pedro Avila (a Venezuelan himself) had built with the young pitcher.
"They gave me the most attention," Hernandez says of Mariners officials. "They came almost every day. They treated me well. They're good people.
"I don't like the Yankees. I never did. I don't know why. The Yankees are too big. I could have gone with the Yankees but I really didn't like them. It's not the people. It's the team."
Hernandez didn't take long to prove he was worth that hefty bonus, and more. He dominated the short-season Northwest League in 2003 at age 17—posting a 2.29 ERA and almost 12 whiffs per nine innings—before doing the same to the California League the first half of last year. (Facing Hernandez during a rehab stint, Angels slugger Troy Glaus commented to the Inland Empire catcher, "Man, this guy throws hard.") Hernandez threw a perfect inning for the World team at the Futures Game in Houston before proving he was the real deal at Double-A in the second half.
Morse, his shortstop at San Antonio, says what most impresses him about Hernandez is his presence on the mound. "When he's pitching, he is the baddest one there," Morse says. "No one else is better than him. This guy, when he gets in a jam, if he gives up a hit, in his eyes he's like, ‘Oh, that guy was lucky, I gave that to him.' I would see guys changing their swings—guys hitting .315 changing their swings just to face this guy. They were defensively hitting all the time."
Though he could probably do the same to major league hitters right now, Hernandez will start the season back in the minors, assured of a callup as soon as the Mariners deem it safe. "It's very seductive," Price admits. But even Hernandez doesn't mind a short delay. "I need to learn a little more," he says.
Specifically he hopes to add a little better command of his fastball.
When that happens, Hernandez' last piece of minor league development will be complete. Then the rest of baseball will get to remember the first time they saw Felix Hernandez. They won't be waiting long.