M's 2005 Top 50 Prospects: No. 1

The journey was long but we have finally arrived at the pinnacle. InsidethePark.com's 2005 Top 50 Mariners Prospect Countdown is finally complete as we unveil the cream of the crop, the creme de la creme, the Big Kahuna, or better yet - Numero Uno.

If you were a diehard M's fan pining for information on their future during the summer of 2003, you might have noticed a few solid stat lines that impressed you. A few starters in Double-A may have caught your eye and a reliever or two with real potential may have put up some solid numbers.

A deeper look, by the baseball geeks who can't get enough, would have revealed some gaudy numbers by a 17-year-old right-hander in the Northwest League.

Felix Hernandez made his pro debut with the Everett Aqua Sox of the Northwest League in June 2003. Having just turned 17 the previous April, the kid from Venezuela was four and sometimes five or six years younger than almost everyone else in the league.

The age difference obviously didn't hinder Hernandez's ability to dominate the game from 60 feet, six inches away, as he let it fly from the dirt hill in the middle of the diamond.

Hernandez went 7-2 with Everett, posting a stingy ERA of 2.29 in 55 innings of work. He was then shipped to Wisconsin and put up a 1.93 ERA in two starts for the Timber Rattlers, which were in the midst of a pennant race.

In his 69 innings pitched that year, Hernandez struck out 91 batters and walked just 27. It all came against hitters far more advanced in age and experience and in situations where most teenagers would crumble like a stale cookie.

Not King Felix.

Hernandez grabbed the attention of the Mariners in his home country of Venezuela back in 2002 as a 16-year-old flame-thrower. Midway through the Venezuelan Summer League, M's scouts Bob Engle, Pedro Avila and Emilio Carrasquel had seen enough. Hernandez signed with the club on the Fourth of July.

Since then, all the kid has done is win 21 of 27 decisions while putting up a 2.74 ERA. In 218 innings, he has struck out 263 would-be batters while handing free passes to just 74. All before the age of 19.

That's what you'd call a super blue-chip prospect with "big-league ace" written all him.

Welcome to Adobe GoLive 6
InsideThePark Prospect No. 1
Felix Hernandez RHP
Opening Day Age: 18
Height/Weight: 6-3/210
Bats/Throws: R/R
Acquired: Signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2002














Inland Empire












San Antonio











Hernandez is far advanced in the areas command, pitch-ability and is even emotionally sound on the mound. Wherever he pitches, he displays strong traits of maturity. The Venezuelan is able to rely on pure stuff most of the time but doesn't take it for granted, often trying to outsmart opposing hitters as well as overpower them. His understanding of how to pitch is still in its early stages, but considering he will be just 19 this coming spring, the kid is far above the curve in all aspects of the pitching game.

"He does a great job of staying pretty calm," said Mariner minor league pitching coordinator Pat Rice. "He's a big prospect and a lot of people want a piece of him, and he doesn't let those things bother him. He tends to rise to the occasion, when he needs to make a big pitch he makes one. He's not intimidated by anybody."

Some scouts believe he is the best pitching prospect they have seen in some time - or possibly ever - and watching him live certianly doesn't shrink the effect.

"I couldn't believe the boxscores but seeing is believing, and then some," said an American League scout. "At 17 he was eye-popping, at 18 he is just unbelievable. Great stuff, great control and he seems to stay even-keel throughout. Very impressive."

With a 215-plus pound frame, Hernandez has the physical strength to backup his heavy velocity and future workload.

The teen sensation is not without a few kinks in the armor, and though they aren't anything to gasp about they do need to be addressed. At times Hernandez can get too involved in the "dominance" game and try to throw the ball by everybody in every at-bat. Even though he can be successful in doing so, it isn't condusive to his further development as a major league caliber starting pitcher.

"I think the big thing on him is learning to improve his effort level a little bit," said Rice. "He has a tendency to overthrow. When he gets a little emotionally involved in the game, he has a tendency to overthrow. That just comes with age. The more comfortable you are in situations, the more you are able to control your emotions. There's not much else. The kid is really good."

Tools: Scout's Profiling Scale

Fastball: 80
Hernandez sits in the 93-96 MPH range and he can turn it up to 97-98 when he wants. When hitters sit on his "average" fastball, he simply dials up a bigger number and blows it on by the helpless batsmen. With great command to go along with top velocity, the game's best pitching prospect has a perfect primary option to set up his secondary pitches.

Curve: 80
A true hammer-style curve ball, Hernandez's out pitch is a devastating, overhand, drop-off-the-table breaking ball that is virtually unhittable when located properly. It is effective when thrown in or out of the strike zone and rarely hangs for the hitter to pounce on. If Hernandez is ahead in the count, the hitter has to start looking for the breaking stuff and is pretty much at the mercy of the soon-to-be 19-year-old.

Change Up: 60
Perhaps the most impressive pitch Hernandez throws is his change-up. Typically, young pitchers take a few extra years to get a feel for an effective change up and then fight their command with the pitch. Hernandez is well on his way to filling his cupboard with 80s across the board. Some work on more consistent arm action as well as improved command, and it'll be three 80s right off the bat. Or, right "by" the bat, as it may be.

"He can go fastball, curveball and get everybody out," said Rice. "But he knows he'll need the changeup in the big leagues."

Slider: 70
Tough to say where his slider sits right now, as the right-hander only throws it on occasion after the club asked him to shelf the pitch until his arm was physically ready to take on the stress put on the arm when throwing such a pitch. Many say it may end up being his best pitch.

"He has the best fastball, best curveball and probably when he starts throwing the slider he'll have the best one of those too," said Rice, referring to where Hernandez compares to the rest of the M's minor league pitchers. "He also has an exceptional change-up for someone his age."

Command: 75
Many times a pitcher will step up onto the mound and let a 95 MPH fastball fly into the catcher's mitt. It happens all the time, even with young arms. Nearly as often, the same arm will toss up a sharp-breaking offspeed pitch that falls off the table. But how often does that same pitcher throw both pitches for strikes on a consistent basis? Not very often.

Hernandez not only limits walks and can locate his pitches well, he stays away from deep counts and long innings, something that pitchers 5-10 years his senior are still trying to master. His 47 walks in 149.1 innings say enough, but throwing just eight wild pitches in 26 games is another indication of his advanced skill set. As he gains more experience, his control with sharpen, and all of his pitches will become even more effective.

Delivery: 70
Hernandez has a typical power delivery with strong, quick motions in both the wind up and when pitching from the stretch. He doesn't lose any velocity from the stretch, which allows him to stay focused on the hitter once runners do reach base. His pickoff move needs work but more experience with men on base will improve his work on the rubber.

Hernandez has very consistent arm action on all of his pitches, but he tends to finish his delivery a little bit wildly and is somewhat out of position to defend his area should any grounders be hit back his way. Again, more experience is all that is needed to rectify any shortcomings with his delivery.

Hernandez has the talent to be a true ace at the big-league level and, if all goes well, maybe among the best anyone has ever seen. It's crucial that he stays focused on the task at hand, rather than letting the pressure and expectations get to him. The club's handling of "King Felix" is as important as his physical, mental and emotional development. The Mariners requested for the first time in three winters that Hernandez pass on the opportunity to pitch in his native Venezuela so he could give his arm as much rest as possible heading into spring training in February.

The M's prized prospect will start the 2005 season in Triple-A Tacoma, where he will join a veteran and experienced rotation with the Rainiers. Under the tutelage of Rafael Chaves, one of baseball's better pitching coaches, Hernandez is in good hands and will undoubtedly be put in the best situations possible in order to protect and challenge him at the same time.

Hernandez has never thrown more than 150 innings in a season and the Mariners are in no hurry to see their top prospect get into too many high pitch counts or approach the 200-inning plateau.

"Being smart with him is important," said a National League scout. "You can't overwork him while he is still maturing physically. But the Mariners will find a way to challenge his efforts, both physically and mentally. That's how he will develop into their ace of the future."

Hernandez has Hall of Fame stuff and his secondary talents are quickly catching up to his natural gifts. If all goes well, Hernandez could be sporting a M's uniform this summer.

And that would just be the start of something special. Very special.

MLB Clone: Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior

MLB ETA: Post All-Star Break 2005

Jason A. Churchill can be reached via e-mail at JasonAChurchill@insidethePark.com

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