'King Felix' happy as Mariners' much-needed ace
PEORIA, Ariz. (AP)
He is the ace on a team that is struggling to find respectability in the tough AL West, and the role suits Felix Hernandez just fine.
''King Felix'' says he is ''not going anywhere,'' exactly the position of the Seattle Mariners' front office despite speculation that inevitably surfaces from time to time for a team that finished dead last in its division the past two years.
The 2010 AL Cy Young winner is entering his seventh full season with the Mariners, and he's only 25 years old. The team so wanted to hang on to their biggest star that a year ago they signed him to a five-year, $78 million contract. He is to make $18.5 million this year.
Hernandez has been a workhorse, topping 200 innings in each of the past four seasons. Plagued by a lack of offensive support, his win-loss record doesn't reflect his effectiveness.
Last season, he was 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA on a team that finished 67-95. Only Houston and Minnesota had worse records. In his Cy Young season of 2010, he was just 13-12 but led the league with a 2.27 ERA, 34 games started, 249 2-3 innings pitched and 1,001 batters faced. Since he came to the majors as a 19-year-old in 2005, Hernandez is 85-67 with a 3.24 ERA in an impressive 205 starts. He led the league in wins at 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA in 2009.
His strikeout total stands at 1,264 - with 217 or more each of the past three seasons.
''I'm very happy with my career right now,'' Hernandez said before working out Tuesday on a chilly Arizona morning. ''I know I'm still young and still can learn something new. I've just got to keep learning and keep doing what I do.''
The team tried to address some of its offensive problems by acquiring promising young catcher Jesus Montero from the New York Yankees in a four-player trade, but it cost them All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda.
That leaves lefty Jason Vargas as the No. 2 pitcher in the Seattle rotation, with Japanese newcomer Hisashi Iwakuma and Hector Noesi, who came in the Yankee trade, competing for the No. 3 spot. Vargas expects pitching to be the strong suit for the Mariners again.
''We've always thrown the ball well,'' he said. ''I think everybody would like to score more runs but that just didn't happen. Our focus is only pitching. That's all we can control.''
Hernandez, Vargas said, sets the tone for every Mariner who takes the mound.
''There's a few pitchers in baseball that any team would love to have,'' Vargas said, ''and he's right there at the top of that list. To have him on our side, to just be able to feed off that, the energy that he brings out there, it's pretty special. You get a chance to watch something every five days.''
Seattle's climb to respectability could be a long one but Hernandez insists he will see it through.
''I'm not going anywhere, man,'' he said. ''I'm staying here for a long time.''
He, his wife and their two children live most of the year in Seattle, with trips to his native Venezuela for Christmas and New Year's, he said.
''I like the city,'' Hernandez said. ''I love the people up there. I love Seattle.''
''I'm not thinking about that now,'' he said. ''Come on, man. ... Anaheim has pretty good hitters. Texas has a pretty good lineup. What you've got to do is you've got to make good pitches, then you'll be OK. `'
The 6-foot-3 right-hander showed up for spring training a bit lighter than usual - he says he's down about five to seven pounds from his usual 225 - not because he planned it that way but because of workouts in the offseason in Venezuela and Seattle.
Work will begin in earnest early this year for the Mariners ace. He is to pitch the season opener March 28 in Tokyo against the Oakland Athletics. Eleven days later, Hernandez will turn 26.
''We're all young guys in here and we're trying to build something good,'' he said, ''and I think we're going in the right direction.''
Second-year manager Eric Wedge said he had a long talk with Hernandez at the end of last season, reassuring him of the team's plans for improvement.
''As much as anybody, I want him to believe in what we're doing here,'' Wedge said, ''because he as much as anybody deserves to reap the benefits of that, as we turn the corner, as we become a more well-balanced ball club and start to win more ball games.''
Notes: The Mariners announced Tuesday that C Chris Gimenez has elected free agency after declining to be outrighted to Triple-A Tacoma. Gimenez was designated for assignment on Feb. 6 when the team signed pitchers Hong-Chih Kuo and Shawn Camp.