This much is clear. Long-time Mariners ace Felix Hernandez is aware of the doubts and the questions. He spent much of the winter engaged in a new workout regimen with only one thought in mind.
"I’ve got to prove people wrong," he said Tuesday shortly after completing his annual pre-came physical examination at the club’s year-round complex. "I feel fine. I’m healthy. That’s the main thing."
This is a buffed-up King after an off-season spent under the guidance of a trainer Iron Glenn Freeman, who devised the winter routines that previously helped keep teammates Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano productive into their 30s.
"They told me about him," Hernandez said. "Then I went to New York to see him. I worked out for four days, and then we decided I would work out with him in the off-season in Miami.
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"It was hard, but I feel really good. You kill yourself in the weight room, but it’s fun. Those two-hour workouts are fun."
For his part, Freeman is predicting a revitalized King.
"I had to push him," Freeman said, "but he bought into it. Myself, I pencil Felix in for five more wins. I’m expecting him to at least get comeback player of the year if not being in the Cy Young conversation. He’s very motivated."
The Mariners will take that.
Hernandez checked into camp at 224 pounds, saying, "I was too skinny last year at 207." He is also on an accelerated workout schedule after easing into his spring work in recent years. His first bullpen workout is tentatively set for Thursday.
The reason for the push?
Hernandez needs to build up his innings and endurance before departing next month to pitch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. He is already slotted to start Venezuela’s opener on March 10 against Puerto Rico in Jalisco, Mexico.
"It means a lot," he said. "I think we’ve got a pretty good team and can win the whole thing."
That Hernandez enters the upcoming season at a career crossroads is hard to dispute. He is coming off a disappointing season that fueled skepticism, for the first time in his career, as to whether he remains among the game’s elite pitchers.
"I don’t know why," he said. "I’m still here."
The King spent nearly two months last season on the disabled list because of a torn calf muscle, which ended his 10-year streak of making at least 30 starts and pitching 190 or more innings.
His 3.92 ERA was the highest of his career since he was a 21-year-old in 2007. His strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 7.2 per nine innings. It had never previously been below 7.8 and had been at least 8.4 for the previous six seasons.
MLB Network ran a survey in mid-January to determine the best starting pitcher in the game. The list of 24 candidates did not include the King. Even a year ago, that would have been unthinkable.
"After all," Baseball Prospectus harshly observed in its 2017 annual preview, "declining velocity and failing command make for interesting bedfellows…The Felix we know is gone."
Hernandez is now in his 30s — he turns 31 in April — and when last season ended, even club officials cited a need for him to re-invent himself.
"Where he’s at in his career," manager Scott Servais said, "he’s going to have to make a few adjustments in the off-season and come into spring training in better shape and with more urgency. We certainly need him at the top of the rotation.
"We need him in the rotation, preferably at the top. He has a history of doing that, but he’s at that point in his career where he’s going to have to make a few adjustments to get the results that he wants."
Hernandez headed into the winter vowing to do just that.
"I was disappointed, for sure," he admitted. "I’m the guys who always wants to throw 200 innings and win the most games that I can and get the most strikeouts that I can. It happens. I’ve just got to forget about this and be ready for next year."
It’s now next year, and the King said he’s ready. He also insisted he spent no offseason time thinking about last season’s disappointments, which included another near-miss in the Mariners’ ongoing effort to end their postseason drought.
"I just wanted to forget about everything," Hernandez said, "and have fun in the offseason."
That fun extended beyond his workouts with Freeman. There was also a family safari trip to Africa where — did the Mariners know this? — lions paraded by within arm’s length.
"They just walked by me," Hernandez said. "I was in the car, and they just walked by me. He wasn’t in a cage. He just walked by."
It amounted to a metaphor for the upcoming season.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners