Felix Hernandez is in the house, chatting up teammates and clubhouse attendants as the Mariners head into their third day of workouts here in Peoria. We’ll speak to Hernandez when he’s done working out this morning — he’ll just play catch, no bullpen sessions.
I caught up with another pitcher who could be joining Hernandez in the rotation at some point. Danny Hultzen is one of the charter “Big Three” members from Seattle’s minor league trio of arms — James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are the others — and got the furthest of any of the young hopefulls last season by making a dozen starts in Class AAA.
Unfortunately for him, the AAA call-up is where he ran out of gas.
“I just couldn’t throw strikes,” Hultzen said. “I had no idea where the ball was going. You can ask anyone I played catch with — I couldn’t hit them in the chest when we were playing catch. I have no idea how that happened or why that happened. I think it was…just being tired.”
The AAA numbers speak for themselves: a 1-4 record, 5.92 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 43 walks in 48 2/3 innings. The 10.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings was a positive sign he still had stuff to overwhelm AAA hitters. But the walks are an indicator that, yes, he really had no idea where his pitches were going to wind up.
An interesting side note to the “Prospects Game” that people love to play every winter — staking their claim to the Next Big Thing — is that there will always be somebody cast aside in favor of the new flavor of the month. Hultzen isn’t exactly Vinnie Catricala when it comes to one year’s big hype turning into the following year’s pumpkin. But nor is Hultzen as shiny and new to some sideline pundits as he once was. You hear words like “mid-rotation” or even “back end” guy associated with his name now, barely a year after he was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
It’s ridiculous, of course.
Hultzen need only look across the clubhouse at guys like Michael Morse and Michael Saunders to see how even prognostications attached to guys already in the big leagues can be turned on their ear after a few seasons. The upshot of this where Hultzen is concerned is that he arrived in camp to a bit less fanfare than before. The entire “Big Three” thing was a bit overdone last year by the Mariners, the media and the blogosphere and so perhaps what we’re seeing now is a more realistic approach.
Hultzen said he’s just fine with this being a lower-key spring if that’s how it goes.
“I never really tried to pay attention to that kind of stuff,” he said. “But this year I do feel a lot more comfortable. Last year, I was a little bit wide-eyed looking at all these big-name guys. But after you get to know them a bit, it’s just a bit more comfortable. You know everybody and feel better in your surroundings.”
As fas as the AAA struggles go, Hultzen says he took plenty from it.
“You learn a lot about yourself and how to deal with failure,” he said. “That’s something that’s really important because obviously in this sport you’re going to fail a lot. That was a really good experience to go through that. You learn how to fight through adversity and that kind of stuff. So, even though the numbers weren’t very good and stuff, it was still a good experience.”
Hultzen also tried not to pay attention to the multitude of trade rumors in which his name popped up. His case wasn’t exactly like that of Walker and Nick Franklin — prospects actually reported to be part of the aborted deal to land Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton — but he did come up in rumors anytime the Mariners were said to be considering a deal for one slugger or another.
“I can’t control that kind of stuff,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
But others would let him know anytime his name cropped up on the internet. He had mixed feelings about it.
“It’s kind of a weird situation because the Mariners have given me a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “So, it would be a little weird to be playing for another team. But at the same time, you take it as a compliment because you figure ‘Oh, this team really wants me’ or ‘wants to have me’ so you try to take it that way.”
So, assuming the Mariners want Hultzen to repeat AAA rather than break camp with them — a fairly safe assumption — how does he avoid another flameout? One thing to consider is that young pitchers often are not used to the kind of innings workload they have to face first in the pro ranks and then once they reach the upper minors and majors.
That’s one reason the Mariners needed to bring in veteran pitching — not young, in-house solutions — to make up the innings shortfall they suffered when Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood left. You simply can’t count on a young guy for a 200-inning season in the majors. In most cases, you’re lucky to get 150 innings out of any rookie.
In Hultzen’s case, he knew the workload on his arm would probably take a toll come mid-season. He tried to prepare for it — maybe a bit too much.
“I think alot of it had to do with the fact I tried to do a little too much at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I was telling myself I had to work harder to be stronger for the end of the year. That would mean throw more pitches in the bullpen or lift more weights, or whatever. But in the end, that really hurts you if you’re draining yourself. I kind of learned that you need to pace yourself a little bit because it is a really long year. The repetitions that you do don’t necessarily have to be all physical. They can be mental reps as well. Kind of tone down the physical reps because that can hurt you in the end.”
And in the end, it seems, we’re all going to have to pace ourselves when it comes to issuing final declarations about the futures of any of these prospects. No matter how sophisticated we may think we’re getting when it comes to predictions and typecasting of certain guys, the bottom line is, we just don’t know. A year ago, Catricala was all the rage. This year, he can walk through the clubhouse pretty easily without being hassled.
Next year? Who knows how people will view Catricala? Or Hultzen? Or Paxton, or Walker.
In the end, you just have to look over at Morse and Saunders. We just don’t know.
That’s why it’s always an interesting spring.