Felix Hernandez Signs Giant Contract: Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile
Here's a look at King Felix's minor league career and where he stands currently in historical context.
Felix Hernandez was signed by the Seattle Mariners as a free agent from Venezuela in 2002. Considered one of the top pitchers available on the international market that year, he earned a $710,000 bonus. I'm sure that was an enormous amount of money for him, but $175,000,000 is a lot more.
He made his pro debut in 2003, posting a 2.29 ERA with a 73/24 K/BB in 55 innings for Everett in the Northwest League, followed by two strong starts for Wisconsin in the Low-A Midwest League (1.93 ERA, 18/3 K/BB in 14 innings). Despite his young age (just 17), he was already showing a 95 MPH fastball and a plus curve. I rated him as a Grade B+ entering 2004, writing that "he may be the best pitching prospect in baseball a year from now" and ranking him 30th on my Top 50 pitching prospect list.
Hernandez began 2004 with Inland Empire in the High-A California League and thrived, posting a 2.74 ERA with a 114/26 K/BB in 92 innings. Moved up to the Double-A Texas League in July, he kept winning with a 3.30 ERA in 10 starts and a 58/21 K/BB in 57 innings, outstanding numbers for anyone in the '04 Texas League, let alone an 18-year-old. He was now getting up to 97 MPH, while showing improved control of his curveball, as well as developing a strong changeup. He tinkered with a slider, but the Mariners didn't let him throw it very often, worrying about his health and fearing the pitch could stress his elbow. He was a Grade A prospect and I ranked him as the Number One pitching prospect in the game.
Hernandez began 2005 with Triple-A Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League and was excellent, posting a 2.24 ERA with a 100/48 K/BB in 88 innings and allowing just 62 hits. Promoted to the majors, he posted a 2.67 ERA with a 77/23 K/BB in 84 innings for the Mariners, with just 61 hits allowed, at age 19. He exceeded rookie qualifications so he didn't show up on 2006 prospect lists, but obviously he would have been a Grade A if he had.
Felix had a solid 2006 season (12-14, 4.52 ERA, but a 3.8 WAR) at age 20, but he began putting everything together in 2007 and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last six years. His worst WAR in a full season has been 3.7 (2008) He's been both dominant and durable, currently standing with a 98-76 record, 3.22 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 3.29 xFIP, 127 ERA+ and a 38.3 WAR in 1620 career innings.
Looking at historical parallels, the top ten pitchers on Hernandez's Bill James Sim Score List through age 26 are
Two of these guys, Eckersley and Hunter, are already Hall of Famers. Maddux will be. Dierker and Saberhagen pitched like Hall of Famers early in their careers but didn't make it ultimately, burning out for injury reasons. Tanana got hurt at 25 but gutted out a career as an inning-eater after losing his best fastball, ultimately pitching over 4,000 innings. Eck saw his greatest fame as a closer, but he was one of the best young starters in baseball until getting hurt in his mid-20s. Witt was solid early but faded fast at age 27. Coleman, Holtzman, and Pappas all had long careers and were all members of the Hall of the Very Good.
Due to his own abilities as well as modern sensibilities about workload, I think Felix has a good chance to avoid the injury path. Barring something catastrophic, he's very much on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
LESSONS LEARNED: Sometimes a Grade A prospect really is a Grade A prospect.