• Exclusives

    Felix Hernandez signed to minor league contact, huge upside

    The Braves have signed Felix Hernandez to a minor league deal with a spring training invite. Should he make the 40-man roster out of spring training he would secure a $1 million contract.

    Felix Hernandez, 33, signed a 1-year minor league contract with Atlanta

    In 2019, long-time Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez pitching 71.2 innings. In comparison, in the prior 14 seasons, Felix averaged 224 innings pitched per 162 games. If ever there were a player who defined ‘workhorse’ it would be Felix. In what is considered his prime, Felix had a 127-83 record (.605% winning percentage) in 291 games started. This number hardly represents just how dominant he was as he played for a club that struggled mightily in those years and game him very little run support. He put up a 3.00 ERA in 1987 innings pitched, recording 1889 strikeouts. He was a 6-time all-star in his prime. He won 1 Cy Young award and arguably should have won 3 (he was robbed in 2014). Felix broke the mold for winners of the CYA, the very mold that would pave the wave for other CYA winners like Jacob DeGrom, to no longer be disadvantaged by their win-loss record due to poor run support. He won the CYA with a 15-14 record. In his prime he finished in the top 25 of the MVP vote 4 times. He held the ERA title in 2 seasons. He is also one of only 23 pitchers who have thrown a perfect game. I would argue he was the best pitcher in baseball in his prime. Yet he was the least known ace in baseball.

    Hernandez is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, nobody could expect as such. The thing about workhorses is that they eventually break down. Look at the recently retired CC Sabathia for instance. Shoulder injuries crop up. Felix has not been immune to this. In the last 3 seasons, he has battled shoulder soreness, a lingering calf injury and a crisis of acceptance of his new reality. A drop of velocity, fastball command and an inability to stay healthy are often talked about. With a 5.42 ERA in only 60 appearances (a handful out of the bullpen when demoted from the rotation) in the last 3 seasons, he has not been himself. It was painful for Seattle fans, myself included, to watch the King fall. However, he has much still to give as a 33-year-old righty.

    When King Felix took his final bow to the fans and his court at T-Mobile Park in 2019, there was a big question mark as to whether it would be the end of his career. Long expected to be a lifetime Mariner, he could have quit the struggle and retired in the city he loved so much that he gave the Mariners a significant discount for his services to remain there. But the thing people who don’t follow the Mariners don’t know is King Felix is one of the most competitive players in Major League Baseball. He is as much a competitor as, say, Max Scherzer. He made clear to the press in his final game for Seattle that he had no interest in retiring and he would pitch as long as he could. The question at the end of the season was whether a team would take a chance on him. Now Atlanta has.

    What does Felix have to offer the Braves? He is expected to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation in spring training beginning next month. He will not be able to give the club especially long outings like those of years past. But as we know, with stronger and deeper bullpens, the way games are managed has changed since Felix first entered the scene as a 19-year-old Venezuelan prospect in 2005. Could Felix give the club 5 innings an outing? This isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

    The x-factor with Felix that few analysts are mentioning is the leadership and mentorship that the righty brings to a club, particularly a young pitching staff. There have been countless pitchers who have come and gone through Seattle in his time there—James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery, Edwin Diaz, Marco Gonzalez—and those pitchers have benefited from his understanding of the craft of pitching. He has taught his changeup to them and talked pitching with them on the bench every day he wasn’t pitching. There have been many young, promising prospects who have found a friend in Felix, a guy who knows what it is like to come to this country as a teenager and be asked to compete at the highest level. He might be exactly what the young guys on both sides of the ball need.

    Can he still be effective? Changing leagues has advantages. National League clubs, aside from perhaps the Padres, have not seen much of Felix. Consider the successes of Javier Vasquez, Rafael Soriano or, most recently, Anibal Sanchez moving to Atlanta after American League mileage. Felix has the potential to do the same. His unusual changeup and better than average curveball can be effective if, and here lies the question he will have to answer in spring training, his fastball command returns. He has long battled a drop of fastball velocity and will have to continue to transition to a different kind of pitcher than he was a young flamethrower.

    If he can’t beat Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright for the 5th roster spot, can he be useful to the Braves in the ‘pen. This was something the Mariners had to explore in 2018 until another injury on the pitching staff forced the Mariners to return Hernandez to the rotation after he made his one and only career appearance out of the ‘pen.

    Can Felix stay healthy? Here is where I think the biggest question mark is for Atlanta and even for Felix himself who has fought to stay on the mound in the last 3 seasons. If I had to guess, I suspect the low-risk contract Felix signed with Atlanta is rooted in his understanding of the failures of his body in recent years. If he can manage shoulder pain, inflammation and fatigue, the best-case scenario for the Braves is to have a repeat of Tim Hudson who was believed to be unlikely to rebound in 2010 at the age of 32. What if the Braves get from Felix what they did from Ben Sheets in 2010 when for 9 starts he carried the club? That would well be worth the $1 million risk.

    As an aside, I am a life-long fan of the Atlanta Braves as well as the Seattle Mariners. Living in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, there was no sports figure bigger than Ken Griffey, Jr. While he was stunning fans at the Kingdome, the Braves were having their record 14 division championships. While the Braves are my first love, the Mariners are special to me and I would love to see Felix return to Seattle at the end of May as an Atlanta Brave, receiving a hero’s—no, a king’s—welcome.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and former beat writer for BravesWire.com.