We've looked at Jose Lopez, who became a disappointment. We've looked at Garrett Olson, who became a disappointment. We've looked at Jason Vargas, who became a moderate success. It's time now to celebrate a gorgeous, sunny day with the sunniest of all possible prospect retrospectives.
What follows is a chunk of the Baseball America write-up on Felix Hernandez from February 2004. Back when this was written, Felix was a 17-year-old fresh off the first 69 innings of his professional career, and he was so impressive that BA decided to rank him the #30 prospect in baseball, and the #1 prospect in the organization - ahead of Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, Lopez, and Shin-soo Choo. What did they have to say?
Strengths: Hernandez has scary upside. He’ll open this season as a 17-year-old and he doesn’t need to develop any more stuff. The only guy in the organization with a comparable arm is big leaguer Rafael Soriano. Hernandez has the best fastball in the system and commands his mid-90s heat well. He regularly touches 97 and could reach triple digits as his skinny frame fills out. Hernandez’ curveball is also unparalleled among farmhands and gives him the possibility for two 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale. Though he’s young and can easily overpower hitters at the lower levels, he understands the value of a changeup and is developing a good one. He can pitch down in the strike zone or blow the ball by hitters upstairs. He has poise and mound presence beyond his years.
Weaknesses: Hernandez just has to learn how to pitch. He needs to tweak his command and refine his pitches. Typical of a teenager with a lightning arm, he’ll overthrow at times but should grow out of that. Arm problems would appear to be the only thing that could derail him from stardom, and Hernandez has been perfectly healthy so far. The Mariners will go to great lengths to make sure he isn’t overworked in the minors.
The Future: Seattle wants to move Hernandez slowly, but he may not let that happen. He’s not going to need to spend a full season at each level and might need just two more years in the minors. He’ll probably start 2004 back at low Class A Wisconsin—the Mariners concede he could have spent all of last season there—and could be bucking for a promotion to high Class A Inland Empire by midseason. It’s easy to get overexcited about young pitchers, but Hernandez has the legitimate potential to become the best pitcher ever developed by the Mariners.
Just for fun, look at that last paragraph. BA expected that Felix would spend a lot of the 2004 season with A-ball Wisconsin, and the rest with advanced-A-ball Inland Empire. What did Felix do instead?
Inland Empire, A+ level: 92 innings, 26 walks, 114 strikeouts, 2.74 ERA
San Antonio, AA level: 57.1 innings, 21 walks, 58 strikeouts, 3.30 ERA
Felix turned 18 on April 8th, 2004. And as an 18-year-old, he basically skipped ahead a level, dominating mature competition in the California League and then excelling against even more mature competition in Texas. The next-youngest player in the Texas League was 20-year-old Missions teammate Emiliano Fruto. So it's safe to say that Felix did pretty well for himself. Even the top prospect in the system managed to exceed expectations, and the next edition of BA's top 100 ranked Felix #2, behind only Joe Mauer. From the day he arrived in North America, Felix was a man on a mission.
When BA ranked Felix in early 2004, he was a kid with a dynamite fastball, an incredible curveball, a developing changeup, and a need to learn how to pitch a little better. That already made him one of the top prospects in baseball. Today, Felix is a slightly older kid with two dynamite fastballs, an incredible curveball, a phenomenal changeup, an often-unhittable slider, and a maturity on the mound that pitchers ten years his senior have yet to possess. Felix has hit his best-case scenario. Short of bypassing a few minor hurdles, his development couldn't have gone any better than it has.
Sure, we've seen those same potential concerns that BA pointed out. Even in the bigs, Felix didn't always know how to pitch. Every so often he'd try to overthrow. He had that elbow scare in 2007. But people like to identify May 2009 as the turning point - since then, Felix has posted a 2.15 ERA over 59 starts - and in May 2009, Felix was newly 23. He had his bumps, but he got past the last of them a year younger than Cliff Lee threw his first Major League pitch. That's silly. That's silliness.
I think my favorite line in the write-up is how a 17-year-old Felix "doesn’t need to develop any more stuff." And then you read the rest and you don't see any mention of Felix's two-seamer or slider. Already an ace in the making, Felix decided to develop more stuff just for the hell of it, and he further improved his changeup for good measure. It's almost unfair that Felix can now throw five different big league-caliber pitches where so many other guys can barely throw one.
The best pitcher ever developed by the Mariners, indeed. As a personal policy, I usually try not to get too hyped up about any prospects until they do something in AA. But Felix - Felix was one of the rare guys that truly seemed destined for greatness from the start, as long as injuries didn't bring him down. All he ever needed were a few little tweaks and a few little lessons, and he wound up taking care of those and then some, and at this point I don't know that there's anywhere left for him to go.* Already, Felix is everything we ever could've imagined.
* except the playoffs