Everyone already knows the story on Felix Abraham Hernandez. Hits the upper 90s. Features an incredible breaking ball. Still hasn't thrown his slider. Breezed through the minors, reaching AA last season. 6'3, 170-270 lbs. Consensus #1 pitching prospect in baseball. 18 years old.
It seems like the perfect situation for the kid (and, since he's six months my junior, I can call him that) to break into the Mariners' rotation and establish himself on the Major League level, becoming the youngest superstar in baseball. At least, that's the message we've been getting.
But then, nearly every article and player profile written over the winter has focused on what Felix has done, or what he could do down the road, rather than what he hasn't done. This makes it difficult to project his 2005 performance in Seattle, because most sources would have you believe that the guy is ready to lead the staff right now.
Nobody is perfect, however - everyone has flaws, and Felix isn't an exception. Although I'm as excited about the pitcher as you guys are, I feel it is my responsibility to point out the things Felix could stand to improve before we annoint him Emperor of the Universe. Thus, for the sake of keeping people's expectations reasonable, I bring you the 2005 Skeptic's Guide to Felix Hernandez.
- Age. Felix is younger than a lot of guys who get drafted out of high school, which makes his development a concern. Although the team has been good about limiting his workload, he's still got...gosh, what, another five or six years before we can say with relative certainty that his arm can hold up to the usage? Throw in the fact that he could become the latest victim of the Mariner young pitching buzzsaw, and you've got reason to worry.
- The slider. We hear so much about this pitch that we don't really think about what it means. So the team hasn't let Felix throw "his best pitch"? How do we know that it's his best pitch if he hasn't been allowed to throw it in a competitive situation? By the same token, what happens when he gets to the Majors - will Price give him the green light, or will he hold him back? The idea of letting a soon-to-be 19 year old go out there throwing a "devastating" slider and a sharp, hard curveball is ominous, considering the damage that those two pitches can do to an elbow, but on the other hand, depriving Felix of part of his repertoire could reduce his effectiveness. This is a situation that has to be handled very carefully, and I'm not sure that the Mariners are the right organization to be in charge of it all.
- Highest level. In our haste to crown King Felix, many of us have forgotten that he's only thrown 57.1 innings above A-ball. Even the best prospects need to prove themselves in the upper levels of the minors before advancing on to the Majors, and it's hard to do that in the ten starts that Felix got with San Antonio last summer. This leads nicely into...
- Control. Hernandez's walks were up and his strikeouts were down in AA (compared to his 92 innings in the Cal League). He was still damn good, but a BB/9 of 3.3 in San Antonio could use some fine-tuning. Recall that Clint Nageotte saw a similar decline in peripherals when he reached AA; it continued to hound him in Tacoma and, before long, Seattle, where he got torched. Before we throw Felix into the ML rotation, we need to be sure that he brings his control to Tacoma. If he's walking 3.5-4 hitters per nine in AAA, then he needs more seasoning, and promoting him will do no good.
- Adjustment period. We saw this in San Antonio - it took Felix a few up-and-down starts before he settled into a groove after being promoted from A-ball. In a very limited (read: essentially meaningless) Spring Training sample, we've seen Hernandez struggle to pitch effectively as well. If it took a few weeks for Felix to get comfortable after a one-level jump in the minors, how long would it take him if he jumped two levels into the Majors? If he were given a midseason promotion, would he just be fighting growing pains through the end of the season?
- Mechanics. We've heard it before, and Will Carroll briefly mentioned it in his recent Mariners Team Health Report - Felix's delivery isn't as smooth as it could be. He's got a little head-jerking thing going on; Roger Clemens survived with it, but Roger Clemens is an exceptional case. Felix has also got a leg issue that puts a little awkward pressure on his hip and, by virtue of body shift, on his shoulder. Price is aware of these mechanical flaws, and they're working on little tweaks as we speak, but every pitch thrown with anything less than a perfect windup is dangerous (that sounds more foreboding than I originally intended).
With it looking less and less likely that Felix will be thrown into the rotation out of spring training, we can amend a few of the points mentioned above - he'd get some time in AAA, we'd see how his control adjusts to a better level of competition, and he'd be a little older. That said, barring a disaster, he'll almost certainly be up by July, and half a season doesn't change very much in terms of answering the major questions about his ability.
A few weeks ago, John Sickels predicted that, after being promoted to the Majors in 2005, Felix Hernandez would struggle a bit with his control and put up and ERA in the low- to mid-3's before becoming a superstar down the road. I think this sounds pretty reasonable, and it's consistent with the Dwight Gooden comparison - Gooden put up a 137 ERA+ in his rookie season, and if Hernandez did the same this year, that would put him around 3.20.
Here's where it gets interesting. People mention that, by midseason, they want Felix in the rotation at the expense of Ryan Franklin, because the team will need that added boost in order to contend for the division. Just what kind of boost would we really get from such a change, though?
Given a midseason promotion, let's say that there are 16 starts and 100 innings to be had. If you're generous and put Felix at a 3.20 ERA, while pegging Franklin for a 4.75 figure (quick estimate), then the difference between the two pitchers is about 17 runs - between one and two wins. Obviously, if Franklin rides a good team defense again and Felix has some rookie struggles, then the difference is reduced.
All winter long, I've been one of those guys saying that a few games could end up deciding the division, but there's an important decision to be made here - is the 1-2 game boost you get from promoting Felix Hernandez into the rotation really worth the long-term financial implications? Is trying to make a push for the playoffs in 2005 worth coughing up a year of Felix's prime in 2011?
Each side of the argument has a different answer to this question, which can be summed up as follows:
pro-promotion: "2011 is a friggin' long time from now."
I'm not here to try to convince you of anything - it would probably be a futile endeavor, since Felix will almost certainly be on the team by the midway point of the season. It's probably best to accept that we'll use up a year of his service time in 2005 whether you like it or not, and all we can do is hope that the team doesn't abuse him at 19 years of age.
Of course, if the team were really concerned with squeezing out every last drop of production from the current roster, they wouldn't be dicking around with Aaron Sele in the rotation, a guy who could easily give back by July every gain we'd get by using Hernandez.
The only thing we can be sure of is that, a few months from now, King Felix will make us all forget that the Sele/Franklin/fifth starter debate ever took place. Which is probably for the best.
Oh, and we can also be sure that Felix is a stud, risks be damned. Even the author of the Skeptic's Guide knows that there's not a better young pitcher in baseball. What happens in 2011 happens in 2011; what happens in 2005 is that, at the very least, the Mariners will have a pitcher worth paying money to see for the first time since 1998.