Felix Hernandez as a Minor League Phenom, in 2003 and 2004

People who were paying much attention to the Seattle Mariners in 2004 and 2005 had ample opportunity to hear about Felix Hernandez, who was anointed “King” even before he threw a major league pitch in the second half of 2005. A lot of it was the same sort of hype that accompanied Dwight Gooden or Bob Feller in their teenage years, as well as however many pitchers who never made much impact in the majors.

Felix made his minor league debut on June 22, 2003. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported on the Everett Mariners’ 4-1 win over the Spokane Indians:

The Seattle Mariners have a pretty fair leadoff hitter these days. But Josh Ellison, who turns 20 years old later next month, wouldn’t mind filling that role some day.

The speedy Ellison went 4 for 4 Sunday, reaching base five times and scoring twice to lead the Mariners’ Northwest League affiliate Everett past the Spokane Indians 4-1.

Ellison, an 11th round 2001 draft pick out of high school in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., easily had his best outing in his fourth start. He added two stolen bases and a run batted in to an impressive statistical line. . . .

Five Everett pitchers combined for 13 strikeouts while scattering nine hits. Righty Felix Hernandez, who relieved starter Elvis Perez in the fourth inning, pitched three scoreless innings for the victory. Hernandez and Perez will alternate starts in Everett’s fifth spot in the rotation.

A couple months later, Mariners’ farm director Benny Looper said Felix “turned 17 this year. He’s got a good pitcher’s body. He’s got a great young arm. He has a plus curve. He just needs to learn how to pitch. His changeup is going to be all right.

“He tends to overthrow like a young kid, when he doesn’t need to.

“I think he has been as high as 97 [mph], but he averages around 94. He’s got raw ability right now. He’s got a lot to learn. He has to locate better and develop a change. His fastball and curve are there. His location needs to be better, but he’s not wild.

“He’s pretty exciting. He could be something special if we can get it out of him. He’s got potential.”

Hernandez started off in Everett 6-1, with a 2.25 earned-run average in seven appearances. He had struck out 43 batters in 32 innings—as well as 17 walks, four wild pitches and five hit batters. In spring training 2004, the San Bernardino Sun reported on Felix’s showing in Arizona:

Felix Hernandez threw only 10 minutes of live batting practice Wednesday, but that was all it took for Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino manager Daren Brown to realize Hernandez is as good as advertised.

“You don’t find many pitchers that are that good at that age,’ Brown said. “He is an exceptional talent. It will be fun to watch him develop.’

Hernandez, who will turn 18 when California League play opens April 8, is ranked by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the Seattle organization. The youngest player in the Northwest League last year by eight months, he also was the league’s top prospect.

His fastball regularly clocks out in the mid-90s and Seattle officials believe he will reach triple digits as he matures physically. Hernandez complements his fastball with a curve and is working on a changeup.

The Venezuelan native spent most of last season at Short-A Everett where a went 7-2 with a 2.29 ERA and 73 strikeouts in just 55 innings. Opponents hit just .218 against him. Hernandez was called up to Low-A Wisconsin for two starts and didn’t get a decision. He did strike out 18 in 14 innings with opponents batting .176 against him.

Felix’s first game for the Inland Empire 66ers came on April 9, 2004. The Riverside Press-Enterprise:

Hernandez, the youngest player in the Cal League this year, tossed 5 1/3 innings, allowing only two sixth-inning runs as the Inland Empire 66ers defeated the Lake Elsinore Storm, 5-4, Friday before a home-opening crowd of 7,069 at The Diamond.

“Everybody heard about the hype,” 66ers manager Daren Brown said. “He’s got a great arm and a bright future ahead of him. I’m glad he’s on our side.

“Most people expect an 18-year-old to show signs of immaturity. But he’s very mature, and he really handles things well out there.”

Working at a frenetic pace, Hernandez used his fastball and curve to silence the Storm batters for five innings. The three hits he allowed were two grounders up the third-base line and a high chopper at the plate.

“You can definitely see why they (the Seattle Mariners) are high on him,” Storm manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s got a good fastball and a really good curve.”

Hernandez ran into a trouble in the sixth when he allowed the first two batters of the inning to reach safely. He was lifted after getting Rob Watson to ground out to second base.

Before the game, Felix said, “I just want to go out and get a lot of wins and strike a lot of people out. I just want to win.”

In the middle of May 2004, the Seattle Times did its first real report on the phenom down in the California desert, writing that

Felix Hernandez is almost too good to be true. He signed an enormous contract while barely old enough to drive and, less than two years later, is considered among the best pitchers in the minor leagues, about the time most kids his age graduate from high school.

As scouts have repeatedly told Inland Empire manager Daren Brown, they can’t believe they are watching a guy who turned 18 on April 8. There was even some doubt about the authenticity of the hard-throwing Venezuelan’s birth records. But the Mariners have checked. He’s the real deal.

“At 18 years old, you would not expect him to show the kind of maturity and poise he has showed on the mound,” Brown said of his ace right-hander. “That’s above and beyond his stuff.”

Hernandez has a fastball that reaches 97 mph. He also has an above-average curveball and changeup.

“I can’t compare him to anyone else at that age,” Brown said. “I know Pedro Martinez was young when he came up (age 20), but … ”
“He’s got a fastball that moves, a sinker. To be honest with you, he can do about anything he wants to do,” Brown said. “He’s fun to watch.”

Two months later, the Tacoma News Tribune picked up on the story by catching up with Felix in San Bernardino:

For someone in a big hurry, Felix Hernandez seems to be taking his own sweet time.

Running five minutes late for a luncheon at the Radisson Hotel, Hernandez seems more intent on signing autographs than taking a trip through the chow line.

When Hernandez – an 18-year-old pitcher armed with a strong right arm – finally walks into a filled banquet room, all eyes turn toward him.

The vibe in the room isn’t so much, “Who-is-this-kid-and-why-is-he-so-late?” The room is packed with players who will compete in the Class A All-Star Game that night, and are already aware of who the baby-faced Hernandez is.

Better yet, they know what Hernandez is capable of doing.

Regarded as one of the top prospects in the minor leagues, Hernandez is in a hurry to get to the major leagues.

At his current rate, he just might get there sooner than anyone expected.

After blazing his way through the California League (9-3, 2.74 earned-run average) this season, Hernandez was promoted to Class AA San Antonio on June 30 – making him the youngest player in the Texas League by nearly two years.

Today, Hernandez steps onto a different stage: He’ll pitch in the All-Star Futures Game in Houston, which features some of baseball’s top prospects.

Dwight Bernard, Hernandez’s pitching coach at Inland Empire, said that the national stage is befitting someone of Hernandez’s talent.

“You look at him, at his baby face, and you wonder how he’s able to do it,” Bernard said. “No one expects an 18-year-old to do what he is doing now. He’s throwing stuff that a lot of these players haven’t seen … or likely ever will.”

“Everything that I keep hearing and reading has this kid compared to a young Dwight Gooden,” said a National League scouting director.

“That might not be very far from the truth. … This kid is very good.”

“Felix could be doing this up there (Seattle) soon … who knows, maybe September,” Inland Empire catcher Rene Rivera said of his former batterymate. “He has all of the stuff right now to make it. He’s close. He’s really close.”

The News-Tribune wrote about Felix’s background:

The industrial city of Valencia is the fourth-largest city in Venezuela. It’s 90 miles southwest of the capital city of Caracas.

They grow sugar cane and cotton in the fields there and play baseball on dusty, makeshift diamonds and often in the streets. It’s where Hernandez’s game was born.

Hernandez’s introduction to baseball came by watching games on television at home with his father, Felix, who was once a promising player.

But the younger Hernandez actually did more than just watch the game – he studied it.

He liked how the pitchers threw so hard, how they made the ball bend magically in the air. Hernandez wanted this for himself.

Soon enough, he would have it.

When he was 15, Hernandez was discovered by Pedro Avila, a part-time Seattle scout who lives in Venezuela and roams the countryside looking for the next big thing.

Floored by Hernandez’s velocity, his already-developed delivery and smooth mechanics, Avila called the Mariners’ primary scout in Venezuela, Emilio Carresquel.

Carresquel invited Hernandez to work out at a baseball academy in Aguirre, located 45 minutes away. Carresquel, like Avila, was amazed by what he saw: A player with highly advanced skills and great stuff at a young age.

Avila and Carresquel had unearthed a jewel in their own backyard. Hernandez was their gem, their secret.

But soon enough, the secret was out. Word spread quickly about Hernandez, who was well on his way to developing a nice frame at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds. Scouts from other teams flocked to Valencia to see what the fuss was about.

Suddenly, the Mariners had competition.

Because Latin America is an open market for prospective players, the highest offer is usually the winning offer. But the Mariners had an edge in Avila and Carresquel, who were the first scouts to work with Hernandez.

They won over his family.

Seattle’s Bob Engle, a senior advisor who specializes in Latin America player development, said the ties with Hernandez’s family made a difference.

Well, that and a $710,000 bonus, a hearty amount for a Latin American player who, when he signed in July of 2002, was just 16.

That Hernandez emulated then-Mariners pitcher Freddy Garcia, a countryman, didn’t hurt the Mariners’ efforts either.

“There were several teams after him so, yes, there was a sense of urgency for us to sign him,” Engle said. “What I think helped most was that Pedro and Emilio put in a lot of time with the family. They were very comfortable with us.”

And the News-Tribune described how Felix did in his first matchup against a bona fide major leaguer, namely Angels veteran Tim Salmon, who

was playing for Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) recently on an injury-rehabilitation assignment when he encountered Hernandez.

Salmon’s teammates were kind enough to tell him about Hernandez’s fastball – which runs in mid-90’s, but has an afterburner effect that can kick it up as high as 99 mph.

What Salmon’s teammates failed to tell him was that Hernandez wasn’t just some fireballer who lives on a live arm and bravado and nothing else.

Salmon saw three pitches in his first at-bat. He saw the fastball he was waiting for, but he swung right through it.

Then came the curveballs.

Oh, those curveballs.

On the major league scouting scale of 20 to 80, Hernandez’s curveball and fastball rate as 70. Hernandez also throws an above-average slider that’s 91 mph and looks a lot like his fastball. If this doesn’t seem very fair to the batter, it’s because it isn’t.

Salmon never saw Hernandez’s slider or his improving change-up. He wasn’t in the batter’s box that long.

After whiffing on the first pitch, Salmon saw two dandy curveballs. He couldn’t check his swing on either and was soon headed back to the dugout.

“I can see that he was struggling with the curveball … so we went back to it,” Rene Rivera said. “He still couldn’t hit it.”

Salmon’s second trip to the plate lasted all of three pitches as well, as Hernandez broke off two curveballs and then hit the outside corner with a fastball to send Salmon packing.

“He talked to me later,” Rivera said of Salmon. “He told me to tell Felix he’s got a great arm. You feel great when a guy in the major leagues says that about your pitcher.”

After the 2004 season, Hernandez pitched in the Venezuela Winter League for Tacoma Rainiers manager Dan Rohn, with a 1-1 record and a 4.23 ERA over six starts.

Rohn: “He had a tremendous feel for pitching, even at 17 years of age. He had the command, poise and he had electric stuff. He’s young, and he still has some work to do but he is very good. … He’s some kind of special.”

Tacoma pitcher Scott Atchison, Felix’s teammate on that Venezuela team, added: “The crowds can get pretty restless down there. And I’m sure there was pressure on him playing at home … but this kid wasn’t rattled by anything that happened. He maybe had one bad start, but he bounced right back.”

At the time, Hernandez said: “I never check to see what pitchers in Seattle are doing. I live day to day, do the best I can, and I don’t worry about anything. But I want to be there (Seattle). Hopefully, it will happen soon.”

By the time the 2005 season started, the hype machine around Felix was in top gear: with him just down the road, playing for AAA Tacoma, the Seattle Times and leading Mariners blog U.S.S. Mariner were tracking his moves in Tacoma and waiting for him to arrive in Seattle. You can check out those two resources to read about those weeks in AAA: this post has only tried to give a quick picture of his time before AAA ball.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 4:42 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Very thorough research. Nicely done. I remember when he was a rookie he was being compared to another rookie, Matt Cain. Cain has turned out well, but he is clearly outclassed by Hernandez.
    Nice job, Bill

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