A year ago, it was a motivated Robinson Cano, stung by off-season criticism, who rebounded from an injury by returning to his previous excellence. The Mariners are hoping that happens this year with Felix Hernandez.
Now closing in on 31, Hernandez is coming off what might be the most disappointing season of his career. He missed nearly two months because of a calf injury and made just 25 starts while going 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA.
Questions surfaced and then multiplied regarding whether Hernandez still ranked among the game’s top pitchers..
Even manager Scott Servais ended last season by declaring Hernandez needed “to make a few adjustments in the off-season and come into spring training in better shape and with more urgency.”
Hernandez pledged to do just that. He is now using the same trainer who in previous years helped keep Cano and Nelson Cruz in top form. Pointedly, perhaps, Hernandez supplied social media with several videos of his workouts.
The Mariners monitored every installment.
“My impression of the way the offseason has gone for Felix,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “is the fact he has been questioned so heavily publicly has acted as a motivating tool for him to get himself ready to come pitch and show the world that he’s still Felix Hernandez.”
The Mariners green-lighted Hernandez’s desire to play this spring for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic — provided that his conditioning put him in position to do so without an elevated risk of injury.
That, too, provided motivation.
“Good reports; Felix is getting after it,” Servais said. “You have to keep in mind how high the bar is for for Felix Hernandez. Felix Hernandez is still really good. He’s going to be the anchor of that rotation.
“He will start opening day. He will be our guy.”
Club officials privately point out that Hernandez, even in a disappointing season, still pitched better than the front-line starters for two division rivals who also battled through injuries.
Houston’s Dallas Keuchel followed his Cy Young Award season by going 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts. Oakland’s Sonny Gray, an All-Star in 2015, went 5-11 with a 5.69 ERA in 22 starts.
“The demise of Felix Hernandez is being grossly exaggerated,” Dipoto said. “He’s still a very good major-league pitcher. He had a lower-body injury last year. There’s nothing wrong with Felix’s arm.
“Felix Hernandez 2016 looks very similar to Felix Hernandez 2015 minus the innings that were lost while he sat on the disabled list because of a lower-body injury.
“Felix still has dynamic secondary stuff that ranks with the best of them. He still has the ability to go out and create soft contact. He’s always done that. He’s been an innings horse throughout the course of his career.”
Even so, the Mariners are already anticipating what a motivational boost in Hernandez’s already-keen competitive fire.
“He looks good,” Dipoto said. “I think he feels good about himself, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he looks like when he gets to Peoria.”
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners