After an award-winning 2010 campaign, with trade rumors constantly swirling around him, Felix Hernandez is set to enter his 10th season of professional baseball in the Seattle Mariners organization. Hernandez has enjoyed several successes in his 10 years in professional baseball, but he has much higher sights for himself.
At the age of 16, Hernandez signed with the Mariners on July 4, 2002. According to Hernandez, the Mariners were not the highest bidders, but they were the team that made him the most comfortable.
"The money was good, and Seattle treated me the best," he said through an interpreter at the time in an interview with The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The Mariners were among a handful of teams that recognized the unique talent that Felix Hernandez possessed, a talent that could develop into one of the best pitchers of all time.
"After watching him, I could understand why we gave him some money," farm director Benny Looper said in an interview he gave in 2004. "He was a good-looking prospect even at that age.
"If he lives up to his potential, I'd put him in the same class with Junior (Ken Griffey) and Alex (Rodriguez)."
Hernandez has lived up to his potential, earning his first Cy Young award last season at the age of 24, and he is just now entering his “prime.” How do you provide an encore to a Cy Young season? If you are Hernandez, you raise the stakes and attempt to become the best pitcher in the Major Leagues.
Felix respects other great pitchers such as Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, David Price, Ubaldo Jimenez, etc., but he wants to stand at the front of that line.
Hernandez is one of those rare athletes that possess the desire to be the best at everything he does, a trait that has already taken him far in his professional career, but also one which gives him a very high ceiling in regards to his potential accomplishments.
Scott Budner, Hernandez’s pitching coach with the Missions in 2004, made this prophetic statement one year prior to Felix’s Major League debut with the Mariners:
"The thing that's going to make him special is that he's (fiery) on the mound," Budner said. "He doesn't like to lose. He's a great competitor, and when things get tough, he gets tougher.
"That's why Michael Jordan is so far above everybody else. Michael Jordan had incredible talent, but a lot of guys do. Jordan wanted to win more than anybody did, and that's why he dominated. Felix has that nice combination that you look for of raw talent, and he...wants to beat you. That's a beautiful thing."
His then-teammate Rene Cortez also added, "He wants to win everything. Playing cards, PlayStation, whatever we do, he has to win. That's what I like about Felix. Whatever he has to do to win, he'll do it."
Since making his debut in 2005, that is what Hernandez has done more often than not. He has won on a team that has only seen a winning record twice since Hernandez joined the rotation (2007 and 2009). Over that time, King Felix has compiled a 71-53 record with a 3.20 ERA.
In fact, Felix Hernandez has improved every season since making his debut. His 2006 ERA (his first full season with the Mariners) was 4.52. In 2007 he lowered his ERA to 3.92. In 2008 his ERA was 3.45. The 2009 season was spectacular with a 2.49 ERA, and in 2010 Hernandez won the Cy Young award on the strength of his league-best 2.27 ERA. This is not accidental. Hernandez strives for improvement with each new season.
“Do I think I can be better? Why not?” Hernandez says. “I’m trying to get better every year.”
This spring, Hernandez has not been content sitting back and enjoying the success he had personally in 2010. He has been limited to only 2.2 innings pitched, but has a 1-0 record and 3.38 ERA to show for it as he beat the division rival Oakland Athletics.
Hernandez has spent the rest of the spring throwing bullpen sessions and carving up hitters in live batting practice sessions designed to limit other teams ability to see Hernandez too many times before the regular season.
Hernandez’s intensity shows through even in these live batting practice sessions. If he is not happy with the break on his pitches, he lets you know. He seeks perfection with every outing, even meaningless spring sessions that are as much practice for the batters he is facing as they are for him.
With the level of success that Hernandez has accomplished at such a young age, there are the inevitable rumors that come from the “big-market” franchises such as New York and Boston. Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik has reiterated he has no intention of trading Hernandez. It would be irresponsible, however, not to at least field calls from interested teams given the return that trading Hernandez would bring.
As important to Mariners fans as Hernandez’s success on the field though is his desire to stay in Seattle and turn the franchise into a winner. Felix negotiated a no-trade clause into his contract that includes both New York and Boston.
While Hernandez admits that pitching in the environment of the AL East holds a small appeal to him, he prefers to pitch in that environment as a visiting player with the Seattle Mariners.
Asked if he would waive his no-trade clause to pitch elsewhere, Hernandez says:
“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.”
“OK” is drastically downplaying Hernandez’s abilities, and he knows it. He will play a major role in the Mariners future success in 2011 and beyond. He does not simply want to rank above Mariners greats such as Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr as Benny Looper once predicted; he wants to stand as one of the greatest pitchers in Major League history.
With four years remaining on his current contract with the Mariners, Seattle fans will witness first-hand as Hernandez pitches his way towards the top of pitching ranks.
With respect to the other great pitchers in the game today, Hernandez simply says:
“This is my time.”
Felix Hernandez's Career Statistics: