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Felix out to prove he's 'not done yet' in 2019

Hernandez enters camp having registered a 5.55 ERA last season
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez hears the talk. He's aware of the chatter that his career is over after a couple down seasons. He knows he temporarily lost his starting role last season and that there are many who think he's finished after this final year of his contract with Mariners, the only team he's ever pitched for in his 14-year Major League career.

But Hernandez didn't come to Spring Training this year to play out the string. He came to play baseball.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez hears the talk. He's aware of the chatter that his career is over after a couple down seasons. He knows he temporarily lost his starting role last season and that there are many who think he's finished after this final year of his contract with Mariners, the only team he's ever pitched for in his 14-year Major League career.

But Hernandez didn't come to Spring Training this year to play out the string. He came to play baseball.

"I'm not done yet," the former American League Cy Young Award winner said after the Mariners' first workout for pitchers and catchers on Tuesday. "It motivates me every year to come here. I just want to be my best. I know it's my final year [of the contract], but I don't think I'm done."

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Surrounded by a flock of new players on a team in transition, Hernandez stands out as one of the few remaining franchise icons for the Mariners.

Gone are Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz and his catcher, Mike Zunino. Hernandez acknowledges things are different this spring in Seattle's camp. It's likely that general manager Jerry Dipoto would have traded Hernandez along with those other stars, but one last year at $27 million on his contract makes Hernandez difficult to deal.

So there he was on Tuesday, reporting for his 15th straight Major League camp with the Mariners and insisting he wasn't looking back.

"I don't care what happened last year," Hernandez said. "I'm here for a new year, and I'm just ready to play baseball. I just got here, and I just want to do everything to make this ballclub better."

• Guide to Mariners Spring Training

Yet Hernandez hasn't been the same dominant starter over the past few years and he went just 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA in 29 appearances (28 starts) last season. So things are different this year. For one, he's fighting now to show he's not just deserving of being an Opening Day starter for an 11th straight year, but that he belongs in the rotation at all.

Tweet from @Mariners: ��� ���Hey there, @RealKingFelix. pic.twitter.com/GHT4RAhFOX

The Mariners expect Hernandez to be one of their five starters to open the regular season if he stays healthy. But after trading for promising prospects Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson and Justin Dunn, there's no assurance of how long they'll wait if he struggles again.

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So Hernandez has plenty of reasons to be motivated. He wants to prove his doubters wrong. He's in a contract year, headed for free agency next season. He says family is his driving force. And he knows his long-term legacy is still being determined.

"I'm 33 years old," he said, fast-forwarding to his birthday on April 8. "I think I can do a lot of things good for baseball. It's going to be a push for my Hall of Fame career. That means a lot. Now Edgar [Martinez] is in the Hall of Fame as a Seattle Mariner. So we'll see."

The Mariners are pointed toward their own future now, cultivating a younger core of arms, led by Marco Gonzales, new Japanese free agent Yusei Kikuchi and the crop of fresh prospects. But they still have veterans Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc in their plans for this season's rotation, and Hernandez will need to show he deserves a spot.

"Obviously, Felix is going to get an opportunity to be in our rotation," Mariners manager Scott Servais said. "It's a big year for him. He's struggled the last few years. We'll see what it brings.

"Felix is a competitor. He's a very proud player, like many veteran players are. He wants to get back to doing his thing, and we are going to let him. We are going to give him the ball and see if can run with it."

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Video: Felix to stay in Mariners' rotation this season

New pitching coach Paul Davis is just getting to know Hernandez, but he compares his situation to Adam Wainwright, who dealt with elbow issues last year when Davis was in the Cardinals' organization. Wainwright, 37, needed to adjust his game and leaned more on his offspeed pitches when returning for a solid September.

"If I use a Wainwright comparison, it happens that Father Time is undefeated," Davis said. "You lose a little [velocity] and maybe just the crispness on some pitches. Also, the strike zone has changed. It's been a gradual change, but it has clearly changed, and it's affected guys who had a certain style of pitching.

"Felix has always been more of a sinker guy. With a high strike zone, it doesn't really play to what his strength really was and what he was able to use. And with diminished velocity, it makes it a little more difficult. But it doesn't mean you can't be successful."

The Mariners want Hernandez to adjust to his new reality. They'd like to see him rely more on the available technology and game-planning and learn how to best execute his assortment of pitches now that he no longer has top-end velocity.

Ultimately, it will be Hernandez's performance on the mound that determines whether this is his final act and how it all plays out.

"I'm just coming here to pitch," he said. "It's a new year. I came here ready to go, so we'll see what's going to happen."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Seattle Mariners, Felix Hernandez