The 23-year-old pitcher's remarkable 2009 season makes him a contender to win the American League Cy Young Award and sets him up for a huge payday. The question is whether that windfall will come in Seattle or elsewhere.
Felix Hernandez is long done with the kid’s stuff as he finishes off his fourth full big-league season, arguably one in which he transformed from boy to man.
Gone are the outings he’d take off between bouts of brilliance, the distraction-filled efforts when he’d try to coast on talent alone. The on-field sulking and mini-tantrums are done as well. Missing a strike call or allowing a home run no longer derails starts.
His coaches no longer print out posts from online fan blogs, as was the case two years ago, to show Hernandez that everyone had figured out his pitching strategy. These days, nobody is figuring Hernandez out, especially the opposing hitters, who’ve batted just .228 off of him.
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Not all aces-in-waiting manage to grow up and fulfill their destiny, but Hernandez has done so at the ripe, old age of 23. And regardless of whether he captures a Cy Young Award, Hernandez is about to reap the grown-up rewards that come with that type of success.
In the weeks ahead, his agent, Alan Nero, will meet with Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik to explore a deal that will keep Hernandez in Seattle for years.
“There’s no urgency on this,” Nero said Monday, an off-day for the Mariners ahead of Hernandez’s start tonight against Oakland. “Much to the dismay of a lot of people and despite what some want to believe, he’s still under contract [for two years after this season]. So, there really is no urgency on this. It’s not like all of a sudden he’s going to be able to jump to another team if something doesn’t get done. Nothing changes.”
Except that Hernandez is about to become wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of a kid with the truck-driver father from the working-class Venezuelan city of Valencia.
Hernandez’s 17-5 record and 2.49 earned-run average is better than that of the last eight American League Cy Young winners and will almost guarantee a gargantuan arbitration raise from his current $3.8 million salary into the $10 million range and beyond for the 2010 season. And if Hernandez and the Mariners do reach a long-term deal, buying out his final two arbitration years and extending him three to five beyond that, he could become Seattle’s first $100 million player.
The Mariners say they want a deal, but have previously implied that Hernandez’s camp is reluctant to sign beyond 2011. So far, the two sides have yet to even hammer out parameters for their talks.
“Absolutely nothing,” Nero said, “other than the fact they want him to be there and we’ve agreed to talk after the season. I assume that we’ll … all sit down at some point and try to get something done. It may not start right away.”
And the longer talks drag out, the more interesting things could get.
Asked whether signing Hernandez long term will be his top offseason priority, Zduriencik replied that he doesn’t want to comment publicly on negotiations involving his players.
“Obviously, there is the obvious,” Zduriencik said of Hernandez.
Hernandez was “called out” by manager Don Wakamatsu after a May 19 loss at Safeco Field in which the Los Angeles Angels stole four bases and attempted two other steals.
“Sometimes you’ve got to ask guys to step up,” Wakamatsu said of Hernandez at the time. “I didn’t think he stepped up today.”
After that roasting from Wakamatsu, the inconsistency ended.
Hernandez was 4-3 with a 4.13 ERA after that start. Since then, he has gone 13-2 with a 1.93 ERA, and Wakamatsu is one of his biggest backers.
“I’d vote for Felix, without a doubt,” Wakamatsu said last week. “There’s a lot of things. There’s 17 starts where he has gone seven innings or so with one run or less. But again the impact he’s had on this ballclub, especially after last year.”
The issue of Cy Young “endorsements” took on a new meaning when the Kansas City Royals recently mailed a pro-Zack Greinke pamphlet to voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America. In it, the Royals reprinted a Wakamatsu quote from late-August that was highly complimentary of Greinke after he’d beaten the Mariners with a one-hit shutout.
“I’d vote for Greinke,” Hernandez said after his last start. “He’s doing a great job. He’s tough. He’s nasty.”
Not to be outdone, Yankees starter C.C. Sabathia, likely a top-three Cy Young finisher and the only AL pitcher with a shot at 20 wins, says he’d go with Hernandez.
“I told Andy [Pettitte] the other day, if I had a vote, I would vote for Hernandez,” Sabathia told the New York Daily News. “Just watching him pitch the other day in Seattle against us … against this lineup to throw a complete game and get a win. That’s the best pitcher in the league to me.”
But the thing that will likely keep Sabathia from his second Cy Young Award, his ERA total, might deny Hernandez as well. Greinke lowered his ERA to just 2.06 Sunday night, more than a full run better than Sabathia’s 3.21 and nearly a half-run superior to Hernandez. It’s the best ERA in the league since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000.
Hernandez has looked impressive in some other, less talked-about categories. His 27 “quality starts” of at least six innings pitched, three earned runs or fewer allowed, leads all comers. He is also tops with seven starts of at least seven shutout innings.
But the Cy Young usually goes to whomever posts the most wins or lowest ERA.
Yet since Aug. 1, no starter has posted a better ERA than Hernandez’s 1.94.
“If anything, I think it’s a confidence issue,” Zduriencik said, attributing Hernandez’s surge to “maturing and understanding his stuff” well enough to prevail on days he wasn’t at his best.
Hernandez should have plenty of other seasons to make his Cy Young case. Halladay was 26 when he won his first Cy Young. Johan Santana was 25, Sabathia, 27, Roger Clemens, 24, and Martinez, 25.
At 23, Hernandez is younger than they all were. That’s what makes him so attractive to potential suitors. And why the Mariners are no doubt wondering how many of his future Cy Young chances will come in their uniform.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Cy Young race|
|Seattle’s Felix Hernandez is making a case for the Cy Young award, but he’ll have to beat the Royals’ Zack Greinke and the Yankees’ CC Sabathia. Hernandez has two starts left, Greinke and Sabathia one:|