Felix Hernandez, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, is still working hard. Since reporting to camp out of shape in 2006, he has risen from great prospect to great pitcher.

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For all the hype and promise that accompanied the prodigal Felix Hernandez — the organizational scouting report when he was a 16-year-old that spoke of Hall of Fame stuff, the increasingly hysterical scrutiny as he shot up through the minors, and the testimonials from stunned hitters after he broke into the majors at age 19 — King Felix faced a crossroads after the 2006 season.

He had reported to camp in February 2006 at 246 pounds — 16 pounds over his target weight. Some within the Mariners camp feared that all the nonstop adulation was leaving Hernandez with a sense of entitlement that could slow down his development.

On the field, in his first full major-league season, he had his comeuppance — a 12-14 record with a 4.52 earned-run average in 2006 that provided the first real adversity of Hernandez’s previously blessed baseball career.

His response has become an integral part of the Hernandez folklore. Mariners personnel were visibly stunned — and ecstatic — when Hernandez returned to Seattle in January after wintering in his native Venezuela. He was lean and muscular, his weight down to 226 and his motivation to achieve the predestined greatness no longer in question.

“That was the key right there: You’ve got to stay in shape,” Hernandez says now, reflecting on the epiphany that rerouted his career back on a Cooperstown path. “It’s a long season. If you want to throw 200-some innings and 35 starts, you have to be strong.

“In 2005, when I got to the big leagues, I was fine. Then I was a little overweight. I had a bad year in ’06. After the season, I said, ‘That’s not me. I can’t do that anymore.’ So I worked hard.”

And now, having achieved the pitching pinnacle last year by being named the American League Cy Young Award winner (he was second to Zack Greinke in 2009), Hernandez is still working, driven by a hardened motivation to maintain, and extend, his greatness.

“He works hard every day, every hour, every minute, to be the best in baseball,” said one of Hernandez’s agents, Wil Polidor.

Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ director of minor-league operations — and Hernandez’s first professional manager at Everett in 2003 — believes the tribulations of 2006 were a valuable wake-up call.

“I think he said to himself, ‘You know what? I’m not going to underachieve here. I think what I’m going to do is put the work in necessary to be the best,’ ” Grifol said.

Hernandez heads into his sixth full season — he turns 25 one week into the 2011 campaign — at an ideal juncture. He is young enough to still possess the full power of his generous physical gifts, and yet experienced enough to have gained the wisdom and maturity to maximize them.

“I’m smarter,” he said. “I know how to pitch better, and I know the guys around the league.”

Hernandez is supremely confident, but doesn’t cross the dreaded border into cockiness. And what swagger he has is carried with such good humor and likability that it amuses rather than offends.

Ask King Felix what he thinks when he sees himself on the cover of a sports magazine — an increasingly frequent occurrence — and he says, grinning, “Man, I look good.”

Ex-Mariner Brandon Morrow, now with Toronto, called Hernandez an “awesome” teammate. Morrow said off the field, “he’s not the same person he is on the mound. He’s really intense on the mound, fiery. He’s more kind of a joker in the clubhouse, always laughing. You never see him smile out there (on the field) unless someone makes a great play behind him. Most of the time, he’s yelling and fired up. I like it. I love watching him pitch.”

What particularly delights the Mariners is that Hernandez has bought in completely to the franchise’s rebuilding efforts, despite their struggles. In fact, he is asserting a visible leadership role, both by example and, especially with young Latin players, through hands-on mentoring.

Particularly now that his older brother, 27-year-old Moises, a right-handed pitcher, has signed with the Mariners, Felix hung out frequently in the minor-league clubhouse during spring training in Peoria, Ariz. And Michael Pineda, the promising rookie pitcher, is soaking up all the Felix knowledge he can.

“Our players are watching,” Grifol said. “Felix is a walking example for our young players every single day. That’s the best development tool we have, when we can say, ‘OK, look how he does it.’ “

Grifol adds: “The more success he’s had, the more humble he’s gotten. … It’s God-given ability, but there’s a reason he’s taken it to the next level. That’s because of his makeup.”

After signing his five-year, $78 million contract extension before last season, Hernandez didn’t whine when his teammates provided him the lowest run support in the American League; nor when the Mariners lost 101 games for the second time in three years.

Instead, he praised the players for trying hard behind him and spent all this spring promising that better times are ahead for the Mariners.

When media speculation increased this spring that the Mariners could be tempted to trade him — the landing spot du jour was, naturally, the Yankees — he told anyone who would listen that he doesn’t want to go anywhere.

“I’m so happy here,” he reiterated. “I like the organization a lot, I like all the guys here. I don’t want to move anywhere.”

That’s a symphony to the ears of general manager Jack Zduriencik, who continues to insist that Hernandez will be the centerpiece of Seattle’s rebuilding efforts, rather than a trade chip.

“He’s handled all of it very well,” Zduriencik said. “Felix is a very genuine person. He’s fun to be around. He’s got a fantastic future — and he’s got a great career going right now.

“He has a good relationship with an awful lot of people here. He signed when he was 16. For eight years, the guy has been here. I think he sincerely wants us to win. That’s a great element to have out of your No. 1 starter, and obviously an All-Star and Cy Young winner. We hope we can put all this together, and he leads the charge.”

Hernandez bonded early with the organization. He was first discovered in a youth tournament near Maracaibo, Venezuela, as a 14-year-old by Mariners scout Luis Fuenmayor, and wooed by a Seattle contingent that included scouts Pedro Avila and Emilio Carrasquel, as well as vice president of international operations Bob Engle.

When it came time to sign — teens in Venezuela are free agents, not subject to the draft — Hernandez had to choose among several ardent suitors. The Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees emerged as the Mariners’ biggest competitors.

In taking the Mariners’ $710,000 bonus — the Yankees and Braves were believed to have topped that number — Hernandez’s family cited their trust and comfort level with Seattle’s scouts.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Engle said. “The fact we spent a lot of time with the family and Felix really helped us, and perhaps gave us an edge. Still, you don’t know. Someone can come in and blow you out of the water. Cash considerations become the only thing that matters. In this situation, that wasn’t the case.”

Polidor, the agent, says that warm relationship Hernandez forged early with the Mariners was a big factor his decision to eschew free agency. He could conceivably have doubled his $78 million contract on the open market next winter.

“The Mariner organization treated him like a king,” Polidor said. “He grew up in the Seattle organization.”

Engle said that even in those fledgling days in Venezuela, he was impressed by more than just Hernandez’s electric arm.

“He wasn’t an overzealous, bragging type of young man,” he said. “He was very confident in himself, and he carried himself very well. I thought he was very respectful with everyone. We had several opportunities to go to his home, and we could see he was raised right. All those things count.”

But what counted even more was Hernandez’s prodigious talent — a crackling fastball with violent movement that confounds catchers nearly as much as hitters, and superb off-speed pitches.

Grifol remembers seeing Hernandez as a 17-year-old in Everett and thinking, “He could pitch in the majors right now.” He said this spring, “Talent wise, and ability to throw the ball over the plate, he could have done it.”

Dan Wilson, who was reaching the end of his career, caught Hernandez in spring training in 2004 and 2005 and realized the M’s had a major talent on their hands.

“You could tell just from the movement he had and the type of breaking ball he had and the command he had, at such a young age,” Wilson said.

“That was six, seven years ago, and even at that age you could tell, just all those things combined, he was going to be something special.”

And now Hernandez, having established himself as the face of the franchise and perhaps the arm of his generation, sees it as his obligation to see how far he can take his talents.

“One thing Randy Johnson told me (during a conversation this spring) was, ‘You don’t know when it’s going to be your best year. You have to keep working hard and do what you have to do,’ ” Hernandez said.

“He told me, ‘My best year was my fifth Cy Young’ (as a 38-year-old in 2002).’ He told me to keep working hard. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com