‘King Felix’ showing Braves he may not be finished

Braves pitcher Felix Hernandez delivers a pitch during the first live batting session during spring training at CoolToday Park on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in North Port.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves pitcher Felix Hernandez delivers a pitch during the first live batting session during spring training at CoolToday Park on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in North Port. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

They think “King Felix” is finished. That’s why right-hander Felix Hernandez, former Cy Young winner, couldn’t get a major-league contract this season. He’s in Braves camp on a minor-league deal just trying to make the roster.

Hernandez has not looked finished in three Grapefruit League outings. Yes, I know all the reasons to doubt it can last. These games don’t count. Hernandez hasn’t been good since 2015. His fastball is subpar, he’ll be 34-years old next month, he’s had arm trouble and ...

But what if they were wrong about Hernandez? What if he’s not finished?

“Man, I don’t want to talk about it,” Hernandez said, smiling. “I don’t have to prove anything. I do what I do. I’ve just got to go out there and compete.”

Hernandez is doing it. He’s allowed one run through 8-2/3 innings with eight strikeouts and three walks. In his first appearance Hernandez held the hapless Orioles without a hit or run over two innings. The Cardinals sent a “B” team against Hernandez and scored one run over 2-2/3 innings.

Hernandez's third outing is harder to dismiss. The Rays had five regulars in their lineup on Tuesday. Two of them, Brandon Lowe and Yandy Diaz, hit sharp singles in the first inning. Nate Lowe hit a sacrifice fly. That was it for hard contact allowed by Hernandez over four innings.

The Rays produced six base runners against Hernandez and scored one run. Hernandez had to navigate the lineup. That’s what kind of pitcher he’ll have to be to stay in the majors.

“Probably he’s a guy that doesn’t have the stuff that he did 10 years ago or whatever, but he knows what he’s doing,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

I want Hernandez to keep it going and force the Braves to keep him around. I’ve got a soft spot for once-great old pros being good (enough) again when everyone thinks they are done. It’s fun to imagine what kind of player hot prospects might become. It’s more fun to think about a guy like Hernandez rediscovering some version of what he’s been.

Hernandez toiled as a great pitcher for some bad Mariners teams. Now here’s a chance to be a serviceable starter for a contender. He pitched 15 years in Seattle without appearing in the postseason. Wouldn’t it be cool if, somehow, he made it there with the Braves in year No. 16?

Braves pitcher Felix Hernandez signals to his catcher as he warms up for a spring exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Venice, Fla.

Credit: Elise Amendola

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Credit: Elise Amendola

Hernandez could have retired as one of the greatest Mariners. Instead he took the make-good deal with the Braves, who have at least two rotation spots open. Hernandez believes he has more years left in him. I want to believe it, too.

“I feel healthy,” he said. “I feel really, really good.”

No one expects Hernandez to be King Felix again. His fastball averaged a blip above 90 mph over the last two seasons. Hernandez’s famous change-up doesn’t have the same bite, but he’s thrown a curveball more often the past two seasons with good results.

This is a new era for Hernandez.

“The ‘velo’ is not there but I’ve got other weapons,” Hernandez said.

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Hernandez was a great strikeout pitcher for most of those 15 years in Seattle. He won the AL Cy Young Award in 2010 at age 24. He was runner-up in 2009 (to Zack Greinke) and 2014 (to Corey Kluber).

From 2007-15, Clayton Kershaw was the only pitcher in baseball with a higher Wins Above Replacement than Hernandez. No pitcher had more strikeouts. Those years were peak King Felix.

But Hernandez’s command started to waver in 2015. It got worse in 2016. The Mariners urged Hernandez to change his offseason conditioning and throwing routine. There wasn’t much evidence that he did it.

Injuries limited Hernandez to 16 starts in 2017. He was effective only occasionally.  Hernandez had his worst year yet in 2018. Shoulder problems limited him to 71 2/3 innings last season. He went on the injured list last May and returned to make seven more starts.

The Mariners finally said goodbye to Hernandez. Only Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki were better for them. Griffey and Martinez are in the Hall of Fame. Suzuki will join them once he’s eligible.

Hernandez once seemed on his way to the Hall. That’s a long shot now. But Hernandez showed up for Braves camp and declared that he’s not that old. He’s not, really, though he’s got 2,729-2/3 innings on his arm.

Now Hernandez has a new approach in a new uniform.

“I think the red looks good on me,” Hernandez said, grinning again.

He’s only worn Braves blue, but you get the point. They think King Felix is finished. Hernandez says he’s not and, so far, he’s showing them.