SEATTLE (AP) — His fans from Seattle to Venezuela call him “King Felix.”
Yet it’s another, more personal title that Felix Hernandez cites as the reason his career took off last year, when he went from maddening inconsistency and unfulfilled potential to dominant pitching that earned him a $78 million, five-year deal with the Mariners.
“It’s the maturity, man. I had my kids and it made me grow up,” the 23-year-old ace said Thursday after finalizing his first big contract.
The move averted an arbitration hearing between Hernandez and the Mariners, and it keeps him under contract through 2014. The right-hander gave up a chance to become a free agent after the 2011 season.
Wearing a constant grin, a sharp, black, three-piece suit, a silver tie plus diamonds in each earlobe, the son of a truck driver rolled up his cuffs. He pulled away his jeweled watch and proudly showed off script tattoos inside each wrist – the names and birthdates of his and wife Sandra’s 4-year-old daughter, Mia, and 11-month-old son, Jeremy.
“My daughter and my son, they made me a great person,” Hernandez said. “They are the best thing that’s happened to me.”
His deal could become one of the best things to happen to the freshly loaded Mariners.
Now that they’ve capped a huge offseason by succeeding with their top priority, the Mariners think they’re poised to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
“This one was immense,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said, seated next to the beaming pitcher he called Seattle’s “cornerstone.”
“It’s rare when you can secure a guy like this. And it’s rare to have a guy with this kind of ability. There’s no better move than to secure a Felix Hernandez.”
Hernandez could have become a free agent after two more seasons. Instead, he finalized the huge payday after taking a physical Thursday morning that was required to finish the deal.
“I just wanted to be here. I didn’t care about free agency,” Hernandez said. “I’m here for five more years. I hope we make the playoffs and the World Series for the fans. They need it. We got this out of the way, now my mind is ready to play baseball.”
Seattle and Hernandez’s agents opened talks soon after he finished second in voting for last year’s AL Cy Young Award. He gets a $3.5 million signing bonus and salaries of $6.5 million in 2010, $10 million in 2011, $18.5 million in 2012, $19.5 million in 2013 and $20 million in 2014.
He would get bonuses of $50,000 each time he’s an All-Star, $50,000 each for winning the LCS MVP award or a Gold Glove, $100,000 for the World Series MVP and $200,000 if he wins a Cy Young Award.
Hernandez was 19-5 last season, tied for the most wins in the majors, and made his first All-Star team. He had a career-high 217 strikeouts with a career-low 2.49 ERA.
Seattle and Hernandez exchanged arbitration figures Tuesday, with the pitcher asking for $11.5 million and the Mariners offering $7.2 million.
His agent, Wil Polidor, said Hernandez wanted a six-year contract and the Mariners wanted a four-year deal. Polidor said that compromise wasn’t difficult to strike.
But the agreement was. Polidor said he’d been trying for three years to get Seattle to commit to Hernandez beyond 2011, but that the previous regime with GM Bill Bavasi kept saying no.
Only after Zduriencik took over 15 months ago did Hernandez’s wish for security gain momentum, Polidor said.
“It’s very important for me to have security – not security for me, for my family,” Hernandez said. “I’ve got two kids now. I work for them.
“The other thing is,” he added with another big grin, “I’ve got to buy a house.”
The deal includes a no-trade clause for all five years that lists 10 teams Hernandez cannot be dealt to, Polidor said.
Asked how attractive it is that he gets $78 million – and can still pursue more free-agent riches at the prime age of 28 – Hernandez smiled and deadpanned, “It’s good.”
Surging Seattle has made several major moves in an effort to seize the AL West title from the Los Angeles Angels: acquiring former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee from Philadelphia, signing All-Star third baseman Chone Figgins, trading for outfielder and designated hitter Milton Bradley and re-signing active home run leader Ken Griffey Jr.
Hernandez and Lee, signed through 2010, give Seattle one of baseball’s best pairs atop a rotation.
“We’re really close right now,” Hernandez said of a team that improved from 61-101 in 2008 to 85-77 last year – before the splashy moves this winter. “I think we’re going to be good, man. I think this is our year.”
Hernandez, a native of Valencia, Venezuela, dubbed “King Felix” soon after he arrived in the majors, is 58-41 in 4 1/2 seasons. He has averaged 14 wins and 183 strikeouts in his four full seasons in the big leagues.
Hernandez is Seattle’s fourth arbitration-eligible pitcher to sign a contract this week, after one-year deals for relievers Mark Lowe ($1.15 million), Brandon League ($1,087,500) and closer David Aardsma ($2.75 million).
Recently acquired first baseman Casey Kotchman is the Mariners’ lone remaining player in arbitration, and Zduriencik said he is hopeful to sign him soon, too.
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