A new court: ‘King Felix’ Hernandez gets his fresh start with Braves

Braves pitcher Felix Hernandez delivers a pitch working from the mound during the first workout at spring training on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in North Port, Fla.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves pitcher Felix Hernandez delivers a pitch working from the mound during the first workout at spring training on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in North Port, Fla. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Felix Hernandez stood facing his locker in the back of the Braves’ new spring training clubhouse. Behind him awaited a gaggle of reporters eager to meet the team’s high-profile-yet-small-headline addition.

Hernandez turned around and flashed a bright grin. Thursday’s media briefing was his first since signing a non-guaranteed deal with the Braves earlier in January. It was also his first that didn’t feature Seattle media, the group he entertained for the first 15 years of a possible Hall of Fame career.

Fresh starts can be good for everybody. Hernandez spent his glory years committed to the lowly Mariners, who posted only five winning seasons and didn’t achieve a postseason berth over the course of his time there. Individually, however, Hernandez assembled a gaudy resume.

Seven consecutive years he was an All-Star. He exceeded 200 innings in eight consecutive seasons. He struck out more than 215 hitters six times in a row. He was a Cy Young runner-up in 2009 and winner in 2010. Hernandez was considered the most dominant pitcher in the American League for much of his prime.

He was a marketing pioneer and often the only reason to flip on a Mariners game. He was dubbed “King Felix,” even receiving his own cheering section titled “King’s Court” in 2011. It was the first time an MLB stadium had a promotion created for one of its team’s stars.

In 2020, those days are long gone. The past three seasons haven’t been so kind to Hernandez. Since he was limited to 16 starts in 2017, the righty has struggled to a 5.82 ERA across the past two years (44 games).

Many have left his arm for dead. Hernandez doesn’t turn 34 until April, but he’s worked 2,729-2/3 career innings. Perhaps his workload finally caught up to him.

“I’m not that old,” Hernandez said, laughing at a question about adjusting because of his age. “I’m 33. I’m not that old.”

Hernandez is searching for a renaissance. He believes it boils down to health. He hasn’t changed his routine. He doesn’t plan to do anything differently this spring despite the difference in competing for a job versus being ensured one. What’s most important: He’s leaner and healthier.

Enter the Braves, who will host Hernandez’s comeback bid. He wanted new faces and unfamiliar scenery to launch what he hopes is a new phase to a storied career.

“The last two years, I wasn’t healthy,” Hernandez said. “But forget about it. That was the past. It’s a new year, a new organization. This is a new thing.”

“You look at that guy and his history,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He had a down year last year. You never know. You get a guy like that in our system, how we look at things, pitch mixes, things like that. … He looks in great shape.”

Hernandez wouldn’t be the first player to extend his playing life after it appeared to be dwindling. Just ask Anibal Sanchez, whom the Braves scooped off the street two springs ago and helped revitalize his career. Sanchez went from being dumped by Minnesota in March 2018 to starting a playoff game for the Braves in October.

The Braves have developed a reputation from getting the most out of veterans during their recent two-year revival. That was part of general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ sales pitch when Hernandez was considering four teams this winter - as was the Braves’ contending status, which was paramount for a long-time king who hadn’t sniffed a crown.

“(Anthopoulos) said we have a chance to be in the playoffs, a chance to make the World Series,” Hernandez said, recalling the hour-long conversation that sold him on the Braves. “It’s a great group of guys and great organization. Just got to go compete, do your thing and you’ll be on the team. … He talked about (revitalizing careers). It can be a second chance at a career and (they) can help.

“These guys have been in the postseason the last couple years. For me, just being in the playoffs, that’s what I want.”

Hernandez didn’t provide many talking points during that meeting with the media. He admitted it was a relief not having to rehash Mariners storylines. He offered the commonly uttered praise of the Braves organization. He lauded Ronald Acuna, who he’s excited to see on a daily basis.

It was minimal fanfare for an individual who has accomplished as much as Hernandez. He’s no longer a franchise’s face or marketing machine. He’s just Felix Hernandez, a veteran vying for a place among a crowded pitching staff.

Rather than compete for Cy Youngs, the Braves realistically would like to see Hernandez as a mentor of sorts. They possess an endless amount of young, promising arms who grew up watching King Felix. Any imparted wisdom is welcome.

“He’s definitely going to have a huge impact on the team and younger pitchers we have,” said starter Ian Anderson, the Braves’ 21-year-old top pitching prospect. “I’m definitely excited to see what he has to say and how he goes about it.”

Maybe that’s where Hernandez makes his most lasting impact on the Braves. But that isn’t the finale he desires. He’s beginning anew, hoping the next phase includes more postseason appearances than his last.

Hernandez has a clean bill of health. He has a new opportunity with vastly different expectations. It’s uncharted ground for someone who’s seen about everything in baseball since the Mariners signed him as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela.

Now, he restarts again at 33. His first clean slate in adulthood.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “I’m just happy to be here, man.”