Seattle manager Mike Hargrove told reporters on Wednesday at the Winter Meetings that while 20-year-old Felix Hernandez might have the "stuff" to be the staff's ace, he's not quite ready to proclaim the youngster as a true No. 1 starter.
"Yeah, I think he could be," Hargrove said. "I think the fact that he's 20 years old maybe precludes that from happening anytime soon. He certainly has the stuff for it. The way he finished the season last year points in that direction."
Of course, Hernandez's standing in the starting rotation could well be dictated by what the team does in the offseason.
The Mariners are seeking two starting pitchers this winter to fill their rotation, which, at this point, includes Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn and a host of others competing for the No. 5 spot.
Even if Seattle does make a deal for a legitimate staff ace this week or thereafter, there's no question that the hard-throwing Hernandez -- nicknamed King Felix -- will ultimately become the team's No. 1 starter.
Hernandez was 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA in 31 starts in his first full Major League season and generally pitched better in the second half of the season.
Hernandez tossed a shutout against the Angels on Aug. 28, allowing five hits with no walks in a thrifty outing that saw him throw only 95 pitches.
Hernandez struggled early in the season but was able to harness his command of pitches late. He walked four batters over his final six starts, spanning 39 2/3 innings.
The Mariners entered last season not wanting Hernandez to eclipse the 200-inning mark, Spring Training and regular season included. He finished with 191 innings in the regular season and 14 more in Spring Training for 205 innings.
Hargrove was asked if the Mariners would follow a similarly-restrictive inning count for Hernandez in 2007.
"[General manager] Bill [Bavasi] and I haven't really talked about that," Hargrove said. "I think he ended up with 203 innings ... somewhere in there. That will be increased. How much? 210, 215, probably."
Hernandez is under strict orders not to pitch competitively this offseason. He's spending that time in Venezuela, but will fly to Seattle in early January to start a throwing program before heading to Peoria, Ariz., in mid-February. Until then, he's on his own to work out.
"We've been in contact with Felix, especially the last probably 10 days, quite a bit, and I talked to [pitching coach Rafael Chaves] Chávie, he had talked to him a couple times and he was working out, working hard," Hargrove said. "His weight is down, he's really -- maybe even more importantly, mentally he's really pointing to the start of the season and having a good year."
Hargrove feels that Hernandez -- who throws a fastball that occasionally hits 100 mph -- matured as the season wore on, something that wasn't just measured by his results on the mound, either.
"A lot of times when guys that have that level of ability and talent, obviously the mental side of the equation is probably the most important, and he seems to be ready to come in and have a good year," Hargrove said. "So can he be the No. 1? His talent says he can."
Hargrove touched on a number of topics on Wednesday:
On expectations after last season, when Seattle showed a nine-game upgrade from the previous season: "I believe in what we're doing, in the direction we're going. I believe in what our front office is doing, and I have every confidence that we'll get this turned around."
On where he would like free agent pitcher Barry Zito, formerly of the A's, to end up next season: "Mars. I hope he gets signed outside our division."
On Adrian Beltre's strong second half of the 2006: "It looked like he really started buying into what he had been working on since Spring Training. He's a much more efficient hitter. You know, he didn't swing at pitches out of the strike zone nearly as often.
On rookie catcher Kenji Johjima's first season in the Major Leagues: "I think Johjima proved to everybody that he is a middle-of-the-order hitter. Jo was our best hitter batting average-wise with runners in scoring position, and I think that he deserves a look at hitting in the middle of the order. He did a good job as he got used to the American game, and he became one of the better catchers in the American League.
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.