Boy wonder has become the Mariners' main man
Funny thing is, maturity made Felix Hernandez look even younger. To repeat the phrase of the Mariners' preseason: Have you seen him? Have you seen how...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Funny thing is, maturity made Felix Hernandez look even younger.
To repeat the phrase of the Mariners' preseason: Have you seen him?
Have you seen how losing 20 pounds put even more baby in his face?
Have you seen how he now appears 20 going on 16?
But most importantly, have you seen how he looks like a man ready to lead this pitching staff?
"Whatever they ask of me," Hernandez says, "I want to do."
That's good, because the Mariners need King Felix to be King Felix. Lean Felix is a nice step in that direction.
Six days shy of age 21, Hernandez will be the youngest opening-day starter since the New York Mets gave Dwight Gooden the responsibility in 1985. The difference is, Gooden won 17 games as a 19-year-old, then 24 games (and a Cy Young Award) at age 20.
Hernandez is on a different growth curve. He is 16-18 in 43 starts with a 3.96 earned-run average. He is not Doc Gooden, but by today's more cautious standards, he's developing at a nice pace.
Now comes the biggest challenge of his burgeoning career. Can he carry a team that needs carrying?
In one active but peculiar offseason, the Mariners added three new starting pitchers. They gave $25 million to 36-year-old Miguel Batista, who probably won't win more than 11 games. They signed Jeff Weaver, who went from regular-season zero to postseason hero last year, to a one-year deal. And they traded live-armed reliever Rafael Soriano for oft-injured Horacio Ramirez, who managed only 14 starts last season in Atlanta.
They join Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn in a rotation I like to call Felix and the Inning Eaters.
The Mariners should be able to count on Batista, Washburn and Weaver to make their starts and be anywhere from mediocre to solid. Ramirez is a question mark because of his injury history, but he looked good during spring training.
So here's the thinking: Perhaps that quartet can have good outings on a regular basis and combine to win about half their starts. Then throw in a breakout season from Hernandez, and provided the bullpen is solid, the Mariners are in the playoff hunt.
That's the most realistic dream scenario. The Mariners can't expect Washburn to win 18 games when he has done that only once in his career — and that was five years ago. They can't expect Batista to be much more than a ground-ball pitcher who gives a solid Mariners defense a chance to win the game. They can't expect Weaver to pitch like he did during St. Louis' postseason run, but they have to hope he doesn't pitch like the guy who almost lost his place in the majors. They can't expect Ramirez to go the season without a few aches.
But they can expect anything from Hernandez, especially now that he has learned the importance of discipline.
If he wins 16 to 18 games this season, it changes the Mariners' entire outlook.
Hernandez trained harder and dieted better in the offseason, and he looks more polished. Although the Mariners must worry about putting too much on him, they must stretch his talent this season. He appears ready to handle it.
"He's always been confident about himself," manager Mike Hargrove said of Hernandez. "He just has a much narrower focus than he had last year. He has more of an idea of what he wants.
"It's easy to just think, 'Hey, my goal is to get to the big leagues.' OK, now what? Well, now he has a more specific idea of what he wants instead of 10 things flying around in his head."
Though Hernandez didn't say it aloud, he wanted to be the No. 1 starter. Thank goodness, he is. Otherwise, the Mariners would be in serious danger.
He doesn't state his other goals, either, other than to say, "I want to do everything I can."
Being coy is good. It's much better to surprise than disappoint, right?
Health permitting, Hernandez is certain to be better this season. He finished 2006 with a 12-14 record, a 4.52 ERA and 176 strikeouts in 191 innings pitched. He did all that weighing near 250 pounds for most of the season.
Now, he's 226 pounds. He has learned the value of conditioning.
"You don't see this guy make mistakes twice," general manager Bill Bavasi said. "He is so special, this guy."
The Mariners have been careful to limit his pitches, which is wise. They don't want to turn Hernandez into Mark Prior or Kerry Wood, the Chicago Cubs' overused (and now spent) pitchers.
This season, however, they have to loosen the reins more. Hernandez deserves it. He should throw well over 200 innings, and he can preserve his arm if he pitches smarter, if he focuses more on simply getting outs than strikeouts.
He's disciplined enough to grasp that now. He's becoming a man, even though he looks more boyish than ever.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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