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Hernandez, Gonzales hold key to Mariners in '18

MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez and Marco Gonzales are at the opposite ends of their careers. Hernandez, who has already made 10 Opening Day starts and is pushing for No. 11 just before his 32nd birthday, and Gonzales, trying to make an Opening Day roster for the first time.

Hernandez, the veteran right-hander has a Cy Young Award, six All-Star berths and a perfect game to his name in a career that has already spanned more than 2,500 innings in 375 starts. Gonzales, the young lefty, has logged five career wins and 77.1 innings over parts of three seasons, interrupted by Tommy John surgery.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez and Marco Gonzales are at the opposite ends of their careers. Hernandez, who has already made 10 Opening Day starts and is pushing for No. 11 just before his 32nd birthday, and Gonzales, trying to make an Opening Day roster for the first time.

Hernandez, the veteran right-hander has a Cy Young Award, six All-Star berths and a perfect game to his name in a career that has already spanned more than 2,500 innings in 375 starts. Gonzales, the young lefty, has logged five career wins and 77.1 innings over parts of three seasons, interrupted by Tommy John surgery.

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But these two opposites have one big thing in common. Between the two, they may well hold the keys to the Mariners' upcoming season.

All offseason, and much of the spring, fans questioned why general manager Jerry Dipoto hadn't gone out and added a rotation piece to a squad that went through 17 starters last year. But Dipoto felt he already had a promising long-term piece in Gonzales, and was counting on Hernandez to bounce back from an injury-hindered 2017.

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If both those answers prove true, the Mariners indeed should form a quality rotation with James Paxton emerging as one of the better starters in the game, Mike Leake as a mid-rotation veteran with a solid track record and Ariel Miranda and Erasmo Ramirez providing experienced depth. But that formula requires Hernandez and Gonzales to come through, and the duo is eager to show what it can do. Though Hernandez missed much of the spring with a bruised right forearm after getting hit by a line drive, he's pitched with purpose and clearly feels he has something to prove to doubters questioning how much he's got left in the tank.

"He's been a much different Felix this spring from what I've seen in my time here," said third-year manager Scott Servais. "Really from Day 1, he had very clear expectations coming into this camp. Unfortunately, he got derailed a little bit taking the line drive off the elbow, but he hasn't backed off his work or engaging with teammates in the clubhouse. He's been much more a part of the group and really just wants to be a contributor and do his part for our season."

If Hernandez pitches well in his final spring outing Saturday against the Cubs, he'll be the Mariners' Opening Day starter for a 10th straight year on Thursday at Safeco Field against the Indians. If he can't get his pitch count built up sufficiently, having thrown just three innings in a Minor League outing in his only start since getting hit by the line drive, Paxton will take the ball in the opener.

But either way, Hernandez looms large in Seattle's hopes this year. He insists he's still The King. And if that's true, the Mariners have a chance at a royal season.

"I feel really good. I feel strong," Hernandez said. "It's going to be a good year for us."

Gonzales has much less of a track record, but the 26-year-old has been impressive this spring with a 1.69 ERA in six starts and is eager to see where things go now that he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2016.

"I'm excited for the season," said the former Gonzaga University standout. "I want to put this to the test for real. You have to take it with a grain of salt. It is Spring Training and we're all working on things, but I'm ready to get going and see what this year has in store for us."

Video: Servais, Gonzales on Gonzales' role with the team

Servais notes that Gonzales is a former first-round Draft pick who won a pair of games for the Cardinals in the National League Division Series as a 22-year-old in 2014 while he was a rising prospect, and now has regained his confidence after battling back from the elbow surgery.

There's a reason the Mariners were willing to give up promising outfielder Tyler O'Neill to acquire Gonzales last July.

"You look around baseball, he's probably had as good of a Spring Training as any starting pitcher in the game," Servais said. "He's really been consistent in with what we've seen out of him. I'm happy for him. I'm happy for us organizationally. It was a big trade. He needed to come in this spring and be healthy and be fresh and have all of his pitches to work with and he's done that."

Gonzales says it will be an emotional moment when he officially lands a job on the Opening Day roster. He's not taking that for granted yet, though clearly he's ticketed for the No. 4 starter spot to open the year.

But there's something beyond just making the team and he understands that well.

"The biggest thing is we all want to come in here and win," Gonzales said. "Contributing is one thing and making the club is one thing, but we want to get to where we want to be at the end of the year. So as long as we keep that common goal in this clubhouse, we'll have a special year.

"That's my main focus right now, to come in and win ballgames. I don't want to just be on the team. I want to help us win. That's a huge step and something I haven't had the opportunity to do yet, so I'm excited about it."

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

Seattle Mariners, Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez