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"How good is he?" Bavasi asks. "Put it this way: How many true Number 1 starters are there in the American League? Five? He's one of them, no questions asked."
One AL All-Star, who did not want to be named, says of Hernandez, "Wow! He had the best stuff of any pitcher I saw all last year. I came into that game locked in, red hot, and he shut me down."
Hernandez is a confident sort who in Double A pitched with FELIX EL CARTELUA embroidered on his glove, which makes him a self-proclaimed "badass." Asked what he thinks of his 12-start cameo last year, when big leaguers batted .203 against the teenager, he throws his head back, grins and purrs, "What do you think?" Asked what he loves most about pitching, he declares, "Strikeouts. They are the best. A good feeling."
"It's his demeanor on the mound that sets him apart from other guys with stuff," says former Seattle catcher Dan Wilson. "He's got great confidence, and it's not the kind of confidence that's going to get him in trouble. He knows he can throw any pitch at any time to get you out."
Scouted at 14 and signed at 16 for a $710,000 bonus, Hernandez is the heir to Pedro Martinez, who broke out in 1997 at age 25 as the next great sensation in pitching, someone who imbues those 30 or so days and nights that he's on the mound with rock-concert energy.
Asked where else he might be at 20 if not so blessed, Hernandez is stupefied for a moment, as if such a thought has never occurred to him, then finally says, "Actually, in my bed. I like to sleep. Just relaxing. Or maybe college."
He adds, "I want to be in this game for as long as I can. This is what I love to do."
This purpose, this talent, is all he's ever known. It's as natural and as immutable as the Cordillera de la Costa that looms over Valencia.