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"This team could be the next Nats, for sure," Morse adds. "One hundred percent."
April 8, the day of the Mariners' home opener, also happened to be Felix Hernandez's birthday. After the game Hernandez's teammates presented him with a cake decorated with sports cars. When Hernandez had arrived at the ballpark that afternoon, he had been greeted by centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez. "How old?" asked Gutierrez.
"Twenty-seven," said Hernandez.
"Twenty-seven!" repeated a genuinely surprised Gutierrez. Even though Hernandez has been a major leaguer for nine years and already has 99 wins and a Cy Young Award on his résumé, he is just 27 months older than Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals' ace who has been key to Washington's rise in the National League. Zduriencik's plan was always to build a staff around Hernandez, and that was confirmed in February when Seattle signed him to a seven-year, $175 million extension that will keep him locked up through 2019.
To find the pitching talent to surround Hernandez, Zduriencik turned to what he knows best: good old-fashioned scouting. In an age of quantitative analysis—which the Mariners embrace—Zduriencik was sure that what mattered most were his people on the ground. "You sit in a room with all your scouting people, you let them know how important they are, that they are really the lifeblood of what we're trying to do," he says.
Without the benefit of having obvious phenoms available to them with the No. 1 pick in back-to-back drafts, as the Nationals did with Strasburg and Bryce Harper, those scouts have given the Mariners what is widely considered to be the best quartet of starting pitching prospects in baseball. They've hit on their high picks: Danny Hultzen, the 6' 3" Virginia lefthander selected second overall in 2011, reached Triple A in his first season as a pro and is now ranked by Baseball America as the game's 29th best prospect.
They've hit on lower picks, too. In 2010, Seattle drafted 6' 4" lefty James Paxton out of Kentucky in the fourth round. Paxton is 87th on B.A.'s '13 list. Earlier in that draft, with the 43rd pick, the club took Taijuan Walker, a 6' 4" high schooler from Yucaipa Calif. Less than a year before, Walker was mainly a shortstop and basketball player. ("I was a dunker, a high flyer," he says.) Now the 20-year-old is 18th in B.A.'s rankings. One advance scout says Walker's repertoire, which includes a 98-mile-an-hour fastball and a big spike curve, makes him look like "Dwight Gooden, Bob Gibson and J.R. Richard all in one."
The Fantastic Four, as they are known in Seattle—the fourth is 22-year-old Brandon Maurer, a 6' 5" 23rd-round pick in 2008 who made the Opening Day roster—spent much of last summer together in Jackson, Tenn., with the club's Double A affiliate. As a group they struck out 8.8 batters per nine innings last year. The Mariners are betting that pitchers with that kind of stuff won't mind pitching in a tighter yard. "Who cares?" says Hernandez. "We pitch on the road, we pitch in small ballparks. We just gotta make good pitches."
Zduriencik does not say he has modeled his club after the Nationals—at least no more so than to say that yes, any team would like to jump to 98 wins and emerge as a perennial favorite for the next half decade or more. To match Washington's success, Zduriencik knows he must do more than assemble a surplus of prospects and put them in a ballpark in which they feel comfortable.
One of the crucial moves in the Nationals' development was to turn several of their young assets into a single mature one: In December 2011 they traded four highly regarded prospects (pitchers A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock and catcher Derek Norris) to the A's for lefthander Gio Gonzalez. They signed Gonzalez through '16, for $42 million. Last season he finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting.