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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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April 1, 2008 8:16 AM

Hernandez's turn now

Posted by Geoff Baker

A beautiful Tuesday morning kind of helps you forget about the snow and swirling winds we saw at the ballpark yesterday, doesn't it? One thing I haven't forgotten was how Erik Bedard battled and refused to get away from his game plan. I mean, one bad pitch to Josh Hamilton in that fifth inning, with a runner on second and one out, and we might be talking about a much different outcome for the left hander. It doesn't seem fair that one pitch, in which Bedard broke Hamilton's bat and induced the first of two lazy groundouts that ended the inning, could sway a verdict on a guy. But that's the way baseball works. That's why the team's coaching staff kept preaching the need for pitchers to focus on every single pitch last season.

Which brings us to Felix Hernandez.

Some of you have written in to ask what I've got against Hernandez. Absolutelty nothing. It's true, I did not pick him to show Cy Young Award form this season when we did our baseball special section "ballots'' in Sunday's paper. But I didn't exactly pick Hernandez to drive off a cliff either. The question was simple: whether I thought he could win a Cy Young. My answer, as of Sunday and right now, is no. Why is that, you ask? For the exact opposite reasons of what I saw from Bedard yesterday and Hernandez last season and in spring training. At age 22 (as of next week), I don't think he's gained the maturity, as of yet, to be able to get through games like we saw yesterday. I remember Hernandez melting down and making one or two catastrophic pitches in Toronto last season when an umpire was squeezing him.

I can remember him letting the elements throw him off his game as well.

I do still believe Hernandez, on raw talent alone, is capable of improving this season, maybe becoming a 15-game winner if things break right and lowering his earned run average a bit while tossing 200 innings for the first time. I just don't see him at Cy Young caliber yet.



A big reason might be pitch selection. Bedard, as we noted yesterday, refused to give in and change his location even when squeezed by umpire Jim Joyce. He did not let the Texas hitters get another crack at the outfield fence the way Michael Young did on his first inning homer.

I'm not sure if Hernandez has that type of mental discipline just yet.

I've seen Hernandez force too many pitches, which isn't the same thing. Seen him try to mix bad pitches in after equally bad ones. Do I blame him for it? Not entirely. His age isn't always going to be an excuse, not when he's entering his third full season. But the guy is still learning how to pitch. I've told you all before, it took Roy Halladay three full seasons to learn how to pitch properly and Hernandez is two years younger than he was at this stage of their careers and only now entering his third complete season.

So, no, I do not expect miracles. I do expect improvement. Hernandez isn't 15. He's going to be 22 and that's still an age where employers can expect improvement from their workers. Hernandez is in better physical shape than he was two years ago and that's a start. He's also a young father, like Halladay was, and that adds a certain maturity level to any guy (you'd hope).

But I look at Hernandez and how he conducts himself in the clubhouse and on the field and I still see a 22-year-old.

When I looked at Halladay back then, I saw a 30-year-old. Maybe a 35-year-old. In his fourth full season, Halladay won 19 games. In his fifth season, he won 22 and the Cy Young Award. Now, I know what you're going to say, that wins aren't everything and you're right. I'm just using it as a quick reference because those wins were legit. Halladay could have won 25 or 27 games that fifth year if not for his bullpen blowing some games and an umpire throwing him out of one contest in the first inning (against an easy-win Tampa Bay squad) because he threw inside at a hitter.

Umpires will get to a guy from time to time.

All of Halladay's numbers shot upwards in his fourth full season. The point I'm making is, on and off the field, his maturity level soared with him. Halladay used to do his share of joking around in his early 20s, trying to be one of the guys, maybe show off a little. His workout routine was there and he was in shape. But he did not live and breathe it every day the way he did later on. He did not yet devote every minute of each work day towards improving on the mound. He was young once just like Hernandez is now, despite being far more shy.

But something changed and Halladay was a different person from one year to the next.

What was it? He failed. Big-time. In his third full season in 2001, he struggled so badly that he was sent back down to Class A ball to reinvent his pitching routine and rebuild his psyche. What emerged was something far more dedicated, focused and honed-in -- not to mention pitching-smart -- than I've seen out of Hernandez yet. And I do think the fact Hernandez has yet to fail to the dramatic extent Halladay did has not forced him to change -- to grow up if you will -- as quickly as Halladay did.

So, when I say I don't see Hernandez as a Cy Young winner in 2008, I'm just calling it as I see it without the benefit of any games having been played. I'm not rooting for him to fail. If he is a Cy Young candidate, my prediction of the M's winning the AL West becomes just about carved in stone. So, we'll see.

But right now, I'm expecting subtle improvement as he learns to pitch. And if he goes out and one-hits the Rangers tonight, none of that thought process will change. I still want to see how far along he's come and whether he's consistent enough to make every pitch count -- like Bedard tried to do on Monday -- even when the day as a whole is clearly not going his way. Even when there isn't a "win'' at stake for his personal scorecard.

And come June or July, we'll see where we are with him and perhaps it will be time to re-evaluate. For now, the Mariners need a good performance from Hernandez tonight to improve to 2-0. As a contender in 2008, the M's have to win series like this against clubs like the Rangers.

I'll be on KJR 950 this morning at 9:15 on the Mitch in the Morning show if anyone wants to tune in. I'm sure we'll cover Hernandez, among other topics.

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