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Friday, March 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mariners

Hernandez just a question of timing

Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — When Felix Hernandez takes the mound tomorrow for the Mariners, it will mark a milestone. Even if it is only one inning against the Padres, it will be his first game with the big-league team.

Where he might go from this is unknown, but it's potentially higher and farther than most Mariners pitchers have gone before him.

Call him — warily, even scarily, because he is only 18 years old — The Future.

Yet it is all based on what little past there is to this phenomenon, one of the youngest players ever to appear in a Mariners spring camp. Day by day he seems to be blossoming like a rare tropical bloom, unfolding petal by petal.

Since he signed in 2002, he has shown the stuff, on the mound, in the mind, that few have at a much more advanced age or stage.

Hernandez is the product of Seattle's smartly increased emphasis on worldwide scouting. While most clubs saw him first at a showcase during the Caribbean World Series in Caracas in 2002, by that time the Mariners had been watching him for a year.

"Our guys in Venezuela, Pedro Avila and Emilo Carrasquel, had seen him when he was 14 and liked him then," said Bob Engle, the Mariners' director of international operations and a longtime ace at signing Latin American talent. "Later, he threw for us at our academy in Aguirre (Venezuela). You could tell he might be special even then."

Engle recalls "a relatively advanced delivery and the makings of a good curveball; great poise for his age. You hope everyone is special, but even that young, Felix was certainly cut a notch above the others."

Only months later in 2002, Hernandez was with Seattle's fall instructional league team where one morning, Mike Goff called a reporter closer to the backstop.

"Stand here and watch this kid pitching next inning for us," said Goff, director of instruction for the Mariners. "His name is Felix Hernandez."

Against a Texas lineup that included soon-to-be-big leaguers Laynce Nix and Mark Teixeira, the still-skinny right-hander faced four batters, allowed a scratch single and struck out two, throwing hard, showing a dropping breaking ball to go with a heavy fastball.

"You can't teach what he's got, like that movement and late break; you can only help it along," Goff said, "... and he's only 16 years old."

Getting bigger, stronger and sharper but barely older, Hernandez, a 220-pound horse, did nothing but add to the anticipation as he climbed in the organization the past two seasons, going 21-6 in 34 starts at Everett, Wisconsin, Inland Empire and San Antonio.

However, piling up with the wins and the favorable impressions is the quandary: What's an organization to do? How does one handle a talent who's only a teenager?

Ultra-young position players are one thing. Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were up at 19 and trauma-free, but pitching arms that age might be at risk.

My, oh my, what if Hernandez keeps coming this spring?

"That's tough to answer without giving away what we're trying to do with him," said Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, as curious as he is cautious. "We're going to let him pitch. We won't treat him any different, and we'll see where it goes."

Whatever happens on the mound, starting tomorrow, Hernandez has already made an impression on the manager.

"The good ones carry themselves different," Hargrove said. "It's not arrogance, it's like a ... smoothness to the way they handle themselves, a way that even other good young players don't have.

"Anyway, Hernandez has it. And from all I've heard and what little I've seen of him in the bullpen, he should have it.

"Hopefully, he'll wind up forcing us to make a tough decision. We'll decide on what's best for Felix, because that'll also be what's best for the organization."

The old adage about making an "organizational decision" may never be truer. There is little question Hernandez is physically ready, but emotionally?

The youngster has been saying all the right, predictable things here, about hoping to pitch in Seattle but not expecting to, just being in camp to make an impression.

"We've had a ton of meetings on him already," Goff said. "There is a plan. Credit the front office, taking every precaution, making sure he's brought along the right way."

But no one can be sure of the right way.

"We've studied what teams did with other very young pitching prospects," Goff said. "There is no set pattern."

One must go back 21 years to find a pitcher this young that opened a season in the majors — in 1984, Dwight Gooden started with the Mets and Jose Rijo with the Yankees — or 14 years for a teeny-bopper in the big leagues — Todd Van Poppel was up for one game with Oakland in 1991.

Whatever the Mets had done with Gooden, it seemed the way to go. He went 17-9 that first year, and was 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA at age 20 in 1985.

But he never came close to those numbers again, nor expectations.

Like Edwin Nunez, who made the Mariners in 1982 at age 20, Rijo was sent back down his first year. He bounced around, won at least 13 games (but never more than 15) five times, and helped the Reds win the World Series in 1990.

Van Poppel, still around, has never come close to fulfillment, period.

The Mariners want better, for Hernandez and for themselves.

They want that for every kid who pulls on their darkest-of-blue shirts.

"Some kids you just take to. (Pitcher) Brian Sweeney (now with Tampa Bay) was like that," said Pat Rice, the Mariners' minor-league pitching coordinator. "We all see something of ourselves, struggling, hoping, making do with maybe less stuff than most others. You pull for them, you work with them because you know they will work with you, give it everything they have."

Then there are those few who come along like Hernandez, gifted, seemingly headed for greatness.

"With guys like Felix, you feel you can really make a difference," said Rice. "Felix works hard but has that extra ability so few have. I wouldn't say it's scary to work with it ... a feeling of, 'If he blows out, it's my job.' "

Jim Slaton felt the pressure a few years ago, when he coached Cubs ace Kerry Wood at Class A Daytona.

"Not to get into comparisons, but Kerry was regarded the same way in that organization," said Slaton, who watched Hernandez as a minor-league instructor for Seattle and is now the Mariners' bullpen coach. "Both had everything, the stuff, the presence and poise.

"But in all honesty, I think Felix has a little bit better feel for pitching at age 18, and better stuff. The ball looks like it comes out of his hand 90-92 mph, but it's 95-98. You don't see that very often."

Yet it has not been all lightning and lightness for Hernandez. There have been occasional thumpings, albeit rare, and missed rungs on the climb.

And that is not all bad. In fact, minor-league mentors hope for setbacks, in a sense, to see how the youngsters deal with them.

"You certainly don't wish bad things on any of the kids, but you hope for some struggle, to see how they deal with adversity," said Dave Brundage, manager at San Antonio. "When you always throw the ball right by someone, you don't learn anything."

Talent is one thing, the instructors know. Toughness can be another entirely. Brundage saw Hernandez struggle several times.

The team has to develop players, but there is a fine line between teaching a player that he has to battle through troubles and overworking him.

"Felix has had some adversity, and he's come roaring back," Brundage said. "He had two bad outings and whether it was from embarrassment or whatever, he was way better after he had those struggles."

Here in Cactus League play, the Mariners would be surprised if Hernandez had a struggle-free spring. Not that they hope for adversity, but they have to see how the big kid will react.

"He fell apart a couple of times last year, and in one game he took a line drive off the body," Brundage recalled. "He got upset, got up and tried to throw the ball 100 mph, like 98 wasn't good enough. Of course, when he lost his focus like that he had the ball in the middle of the plate and he got hammered."

Brundage makes the point that no matter how special Hernandez is, you can't baby him.

"Since Randy (Johnson) and Freddy (Garcia) came in trades, you have to go back to Mark Langston to find someone in this organization with this kind of talent," he said.

Hernandez showed his inexperience once after he gave up a long homer to a slugger from Frisco of the Cal League.

"It was Felix's bad pitch, out over the plate," Brundage said. "But the next time we faced Frisco, he drilled the guy. It was the hardest pitch Felix threw that day.

"I'm looking at him, wondering, 'Is that on purpose?' He has to learn you can't go hitting everyone who hits you. That's a sure way to a short career."

That is also a kid's reaction, something the Mariners cannot afford in the big leagues.

"He's got some baby fat and some immaturity," Brundage said. "But you want to see that. What 18-year-old kid doesn't have those? They show he's normal.

"The difference between him and someone like Ryan Anderson, another kid with great potential, is that Felix is more responsive to what we're trying to do with him. And he puts a lot of himself into it. Felix has a great work ethic, as opposed to a guy who takes his ball and goes home."

The Mariners will be sure not to mistake ability for readiness, not here, not this year.

"If there's such a thing as a superstar in the minors, players that people talk about going to see, Felix is one of them," Goff said. "The days he's pitching, it's different."

Goff compared it to the feeling surrounding Seattle games when Johnson was starting.

"You can feel it, from the fans, your own players, from the other team. They know who he is already, they know what almost every game will be like.

"But that was Felix in the farm system. It could be the same in the majors, but only when he's ready."

Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or bfinnigan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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