As a young, heralded teenager from Venezuela, Félix Hernandez quickly grew used to being in the spotlight. The more Félix pitched, the more fans, scouts, and managers who watched wondered if they were witnessing the next great ace.
It wasn’t too long ago that he was billed as the best pitching prospect in the nation. One could make an argument that he was Stephen Strasburg before Stephen Strasburg.
As a 19-year-old, in only his second major league start, Félix went out and tossed 8 innings of shutout ball against the Minnesota Twins while notching his first ever win as a big league pitcher. His impressive early-career performance against the Twins was no anomaly as he then proceeded to face over 100 batters without giving up an extra-base hit. He capped off his rookie year with 12 starts, 77 strikeouts, 84 innings pitched and only an ERA of 2.67. Right then, almost everyone who didn’t know about Félix’s immense talent beforehand knew that he had the potential to be a future force in the league.
Still, the occasional doubt and caution persisted. A certain few believed that once hitters started figuring Félix out, the hype around him would die down and we would witness another king crowned too soon. Others couldn’t help but to reluctantly harbor the fear that Félix may eventually share the same story as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood if his arm were to give out as a result of overuse.
True to his nickname, Félix has outlasted every roadblock including a rocky three year stretch when he couldn’t seem to catch a break. In his first full year as a major leaguer, he couldn’t sustain pitching success as a result of his poor conditioning, as evidenced by his 4.62 ERA that season. Next spring, he corrected his mistake and shedded 20 pounds, but after injuring his elbow less than a month into the season, Félix never got back into good form. The following year, Félix had his sights set on getting past his struggles staying healthy after his promising rookie year. He pitched relatively well, but still had to deal with an ankle injury.
Since that time, Félix has been selected to three All Star games, finished top 4 in the Cy Young Award voting on three separate occasions (including winning the award in 2010), pitched the first perfect game in Mariner’s history, completed an “immaculate inning” (striking out the side on nine pitches), and fanning out 200+ batters for four straight years.
Even with all of Félix’s success, the Mariners have yet to reach the playoffs since the 2001 postseason when they lost to the New York Yankees. The closest they came to making the playoffs was back in 2007 when they got off to a hot start but fizzled in the second half of the season. Since Félix’s MLB debut in 2005, the Mariners have gone through three different managers and have seen Adrian Beltre and Ichiro, the player they once planned on building around, depart.
Going into the 2013 season, Félix Hernandez now bears the burden of continuing his greatness and justifying his enormous seven-year, $175 million dollar contract that eclipsed C.C. Sabathia’s seven-year, $161 Million deal, essentially making him (Félix) the highest paid pitcher in history.
Certainly, his durability over the past four years (over 230 innings pitched every season since 2009), his accolades, young age, and experience depict great signs for his future. However, if the familiar backdrop of the Mariners missing the postseason is present yet again, Félix will fairly or unfairly be critiqued and face the same questions that Roy Halladay (who never pitched in a postseason game until his 13th season) had to endure. He will be looked as a great pitcher whose legacy will be continually called into question and be somewhat diluted because he never pitched in a pressure-cooker atmosphere or won the big game in the post season.
If his recent Spring Training outing against the San Diego Padres (struck out 9 batters, 0 walks, and only 70 pitches in 6 innings) is any indication of his upcoming season, things are looking up for both Félix and the Mariners.
If and when the stars align for the Mariners and their 175 million dollar ace, fans will finally get to see one of the great pitchers in the game carry his Mariner team to the postseason.