Félix Hernández believes his storied career with the Seattle Mariners has him on the cusp of joining the Baseball Hall of Fame. The opportunity to win a rotation spot with the Orioles and be a fixture in their rotation for the entire 2021 season was reason enough to come to this rebuilding club.
“I think the opportunity that I’ve got here, it’s a lot of young guys,” Hernández said Thursday. “To come over here, I didn’t play last year at all, so to come over here and have the opportunity, they gave me a chance to come over here and compete and get a spot in the rotation. That’s why I made the decision.”
The Orioles signed Hernández to a minor league deal last week that could be worth $1 million if he makes the major league team, which hardly compares to the over $200 million he made as one of the generation’s best pitchers with the Mariners.
Now, he’s chasing a legacy and is happy to do it in Baltimore.
Hernández, who will turn 35 when the Orioles have their home opener April 8 against the Boston Red Sox, spent a magnificent 15-year career in Seattle. He debuted at age 19 in 2005 and made at least 30 starts in each of the next 10 seasons.
He finished second in American League Cy Young Award voting in 2009 and won it a year later, then earned All-Star honors the next six seasons. Before he turned 30, Hernández had a 3.11 ERA with a 1.171 WHIP
In his age-30 season, however, Hernández began a decline from those high standards. He averaged 21 starts each year and had a 4.89 ERA with a 1.376 WHIP, hampered by shoulder injuries.
When Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was asked about his memories of Hernández, he went back to when he was on the Florida Marlins’ staff and Hernández struck out 10 batters in eight, two-hit innings on June 24, 2011, as an example of how things went to another level when Hernández was involved.
A decade later, Hernández is trying to finish his career strongly for the club Hyde is managing.
Hernández was in camp with the Atlanta Braves in 2020 and pitched well in spring training before opting out of the regular season because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. But he said the glimpse of what he was able to do in the spring was proof that things could be different from those last few years in Seattle.
“I was going through a lot of injuries, and I wasn’t having fun,” he said. “Last year, I opted out because of all the things going on in the world. But right now, I really, really feel good. I’m ready to go.”
Hernández said his good feelings in the spring came down to how he prepared himself, and the lack of stress on his body during a summer without major league games has only made him feel better.
“I need to see hitters, but I feel very confident with where I am now,” Hernández said. “The success I had in spring training last year because of how I prepared myself in the offseason. Now, I’m really, really prepared too. I can’t wait for the games to start.”
If Hernández is on the Orioles, he’ll be looking to bolster a resume he feels is on the fringe of consideration for the Hall of Fame. He has 169 wins and 2,524 strikeouts in his career, and believes if he gets to 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, his case will be a much better one.
“Let me tell you something, I have the numbers,” Hernández said. “I’ve got the innings, I’ve got strikeouts. But my goal is to get to 3,000 [strikeouts] and 200 wins.”
He will need to be a crafty veteran pitcher to be successful. He says his changeup is still effective despite a loss of velocity overall, and he feels good about both of his breaking balls and sinker after throwing his first bullpen session of the spring Wednesday.
“My velocity declined four years ago, five years ago,” Hernández said. “The last two years, I wasn’t healthy at all. Right now, I’m not the hard thrower that I was before. I’m kind of like a smart pitcher, trying to go to the corners and mix with all my breaking balls. It don’t make any difference, but you’ve got to be a little bit smarter.”
Pitching coach Chris Holt said Hernández’s understanding of how he needs to pitch is going to be an asset as he prepares for the season.
“He knows who he is,” Holt said. “He knows what he has to do to get ready, and physically, he looks like he’s in tremendous shape. His first bullpen was yesterday. His delivery looks like it was on time. The pitches coming out of hand look very true, and he’s been doing work at home. It’s been encouraging to see him come in and be ready to roll right from the outset.”
Around the horn
>> Hyde said Trey Mancini, Stevie Wilkerson, and DJ Stewart were early reports for position players. Mancini, who is making a comeback after missing last season following a stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis, looks great, Hyde said.
>> Every pitcher in camp has thrown a bullpen session and is healthy, Hyde said, though new minor league free agent Matt Harvey hasn’t been able to report yet since his signing wasn’t finalized until Wednesday.
Latest Baltimore Orioles
>> Minor league schedules were announced Thursday, with Triple-A Norfolk set to begin April 6 and the rest of the Orioles affiliates to start May 4.