SEATTLE – Felix Hernandez sat at the podium, same youthful smile peering out from under his black winter cap, same diamond studs sparkling in his ear lobes.
He just happened to bring along a little more hardware with him Thursday morning: his American League Cy Young award.
“For like two months, I was like really, Cy Young?” Hernandez said. “It means a lot to me. I worked hard for this. But it’s not enough. This year I’m going to go out and do my best, I’m going to be the same guy, the same pitcher and I’m going to give a chance for my team to win the game.”
As part of the Mariners’ pre-spring training news conference on Thursday, Seattle brought out the one bright spot from an otherwise miserable 2010 season – its young right-handed star. Hernandez captured his first Cy Young award despite finishing the season with a marginal 13-12 record. He dominated nearly every other pitching statistic in the game.
Hernandez returns to a franchise that’s done a complete 180 from this time a year ago when they were a popular pick to contend for a division title. Last year, at the same event, the team broke out its slogan of “Believe Big,” believing the A.L. West was vulnerable and the Mariners might finally find the postseason for the first time since 2001. General manager Jack Zduriencik was the hit of baseball for his deft offseason moves, highlighted by the acquisition of lefty Cliff Lee.
Of course, the Mariners collapsed, losing 101 games for the second time in three seasons, leading to massive changes highlighted by the hiring of Eric Wedge as Seattle’s seventh manager since the beginning of the 2003 season.
Needless to say, the expectations from a year ago are taking on a different tone as spring training approaches. The Mariners aren’t using “rebuilding” as the word to describe how this spring will be approached, but they aren’t talking with the same confidence as a year ago.
“Certainly, last year was a disappointing year,” Zduriencik said. “This time, we were excited about the possibilities. But that’s behind us. That’s over. There were issues, things that disappointed all of us. Certainly disappointed me. But that’s behind us and we’re moving forward.”
Hernandez spent most of the offseason in his native Venezuela, where he became just the second pitcher from that country to win a Cy Young award, joining Johan Santana. The award brought an instant bump in his celebrity back home and made scheduling a challenge.
“Back in Venezuela it was crazy. I did a lot of interviews, a lot of stuff. … It was hard,” Hernandez said. “I had to find time to work, to go to the weight room, to play catch, but I figured it out.”
Hernandez was in New York last weekend to collect his award, one that will be hung somewhere in his home in Seattle. He’s the second Mariners pitcher to collect the honor, joining Randy Johnson.
But the expectation is that this is just the beginning for Hernandez, who will turn 25 on April 8, the day of the Mariners’ home opener against Cleveland. He’s won 32 games the past two seasons, struck out more than 200 batters and pitched more than 200 innings in each of those years. Hernandez’s Cy Young in 2010 followed up a second-place finish in 2009 that was only bettered by what Zack Greinke accomplished in Kansas City.
Asked what he could improve on now, Hernandez paused, rubbed his chin and said, “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
Wedge already knows about rebuilding situations, having done it in Cleveland when he took over the Indians in 2003. The growth of the Mariners’ minor league system since Zduriencik arrived and the presence of Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki put Seattle further along than what Wedge encountered in his first managerial job.
After spending a year out of the game, Wedge said he’s itching to get to Arizona and see how Seattle’s younger players respond to the opportunity they’ll be presented in spring training.
“I like the challenge of have some young players that are at the big league level that we need to get on track and figure it out,” Wedge said. “I liked the fact we brought in some veteran players from a non-roster standpoint. I think that we are going to give them every opportunity to be a part of this.”