Position: RHP Height: 6-3 Weight: 170 Born: 4/8/86 Bats: Right Throws: Right
Felix Hernandez was born in Venezuela on April 8, 1986. Signed as a free agent in 2002, he made such an impression in extended spring training last year that he was assigned directly to Everett in the Northwest League once the short-season circuits went active last June. Despite being the youngest player in the league at age 17, he completely dominated the competition. He continued to pitch well after a late promotion to the Midwest League. Another impressive spring camp earned Hernandez a slot in the 2004 California League, at age 18. He's off to another great start. If he continues to pitch this well, he could end up in Double-A much faster than the Mariners (or anyone else) anticipated a year ago at this time.
Hernandez has a lanky build and is still growing into his body. It is conceivable that he could pick up additional velocity. Since he already hits 94-97 mph, adding additional strength to his frame could push his fastball into the 97-100 mph range. Even if that doesn't happen, his fastball is plenty fast. Hernandez doesn't have just heat: he also has a nasty curveball that is much more refined than typical for pitchers his age. His changeup is somewhat erratic, but still very good at times. Hernandez's command and control also rate as above-average for his age group. He mixes his breaking ball, changeup, and fastball with aplomb, and his ability to throw strikes most of the time makes him very special. He also has good pitching instincts, and better emotional maturity than the vast majority of 21-year-olds, let alone 18-year-olds. Hernandez is a good athlete, but he needs additional experience with things like fielding his position and holding runners. That will come in time. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually, he has everything you look for in a pitching prospect.
So far, Hernandez has had no trouble with professional competition. He overmatched the Northwest League last year, blowing the ball past a lot of experienced college-trained hitters. His K/IP and H/IP marks were excellent. He walked a few too many hitters, but it didn't exactly hurt him. Hernandez has continued to dominate through his first 16 innings this year in the California League, fanning 22 while walking just five and allowing only 12 hits. The numbers back up the scouting reports.
Hernandez has had no injury problems. Essentially, there are two things that could keep someone like Hernandez from being a star: injuries or a swelled head. The latter doesn't appear to be a problem. Injuries are another matter. Any 18-year-old pitcher is a serious injury risk, and while Hernandez has good mechanics and is efficient for a power pitcher, there is no guarantee that his elbow and/or shoulder will hold up under a pro workload. But so far, so good.
What to expect
If Hernandez continues to pitch like this, it will be very, very tempting for the Mariners to promote him to Double-A. The key will be finding the right balance between pushing him too quickly and not challenging him quickly enough. It is unlikely Hernandez will appear in the major leagues before late 2005. But he is very likely the best pitching prospect in Class A baseball right now, and possibly the best in all of the minor leagues. He certainly ranks with Edwin Jackson, Zack Greinke, and other mound phenoms. If injuries or other unpredictable events don't get in the way, Felix Hernandez will be a special pitcher.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, is also out, and can be ordered through on-line book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas, and feline friends Toonces and Spot.