Over the next two weeks, BP authors will wax poetic about many of baseball’s biggest burning questions for 2006. From now through to Opening Day, you’ll read bold World Series predictions, peruse lists of top impact players and sleepers, and toss around hot-button issues sure to have an impact on the upcoming season. Given the honor of leading off our Setting the Stage series, I knew only one topic could possibly meet the high standards of our readers. Only one discussion could hope to captivate your imagination, getting us rolling on the way to the first pitch of the regular season.

Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourselves. We’re about to peer into our crystal ball and predict the 2006 outcome for…the fifth starter on a last-place team. Ah, but this isn’t just any old fifth starter on a last-place team. This is the greatest fifth starter in major league history and the most captivating player in the game today.

Few professional athletes–well, few male professional athletes–have ever received as much attention at so young an age as has Felix Hernandez. When Hernandez takes the mound for his first start of the season on April 7, he’ll do so a day before his 20th birthday. No one expects anything less than complete dominance, from the first time he toes the rubber.

From his first start at Safeco Field in his rookie season last year, he’s been a revelation. The first 19-year-old to debut as a starter since Todd Van Poppel in 1991 and Dwight Gooden in 1984, Hernandez lit up the AL in ’05. Despite making only 12 starts, he ranked among the 40 most valuable pitchers in the league. Scouts marvel at his high-90s fastball, obscene curve and impossible-to-hit change-up. Statheads swoon over his gaudy strikeout totals, worm-burning groundball rates and precocious command.

And yet, given who Hernandez’s employer is, it’s hard not to have some doubt lingering somewhere. No team has suffered more crushing flameouts by pitching prospects over the last half-decade than the Seattle Mariners. Here’s a partial list of Mariner pitching hopefuls, from blue-chippers to back-of-bullpen candidates, who’ve suffered major injuries in the last five years: Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, Rafael Soriano, Jeff Heaverlo, Bobby Madritsch, Jorge Campillo, Travis Blackley, Clint Nageotte and Scott Atchison. These aren’t just the vagaries of TINSTAAPP at work here. This is the worst track record of pitcher health by any team over a five-year stretch in a long time. Yet Mariner Nation is so stoked about Hernandez–so supremely confident he’s going to blow by the rest of the American League–that no M’s fan worth his salt calls him anything other than King Felix.

So what does the 2006 season hold for the King? And how will Hernandez’s performance affect a loaded AL West division, featuring three teams likely to see significant improvement? Let’s take a look at some key games:

April 7, vs. OAK: Hernandez locks into an early-season pitcher’s duel with the second-best fifth starter in the league, Joe Blanton. Working against an improved A’s offense, Hernandez battles through seven hard-fought innings. He leaves to a standing ovation after punching out pinch-hitter Bobby Kielty with a gravity-defying, 0-2 change-up with two on and two outs. Mark Ellis cranks reliever J.J. Putz‘s second pitch of the 8th inning into the left-field seats, though, pushing the A’s to a 2-1 win and handing Hernandez a tough no-decision.

April 18, vs. TEX: Hernandez comes home for his third start of the season, after Travis Hafner humbled the King with three hits, including a monster three-run homer, in a 6-2 loss five days earlier. Facing a third straight tough opponent, Hernandez looks at times shaky, other times unhittable against the Rangers. Brad Wilkerson and Mark Teixeira combine to knock in four runs against Hernandez, but the King’s 11 strikeouts in 6 2/3 keep the M’s in it. Rafael Soriano, already asserting himself early in the season as Seattle’s best reliever, plows through four straight Rangers. A Jose Lopez RBI double in the bottom of the 8th gives the M’s a 5-4 lead, a margin that holds up for a Mariner win and another Hernandez no-decision.

May 4 at CHW: King Felix finally sees some weaker competition in Detroit and Baltimore in late April. Hernandez’s combined line in those two starts: 16 IP, 17 K, 2 BB, 7 H, 11 balls hit out of the infield. A sell-out crowd of 40,615 shows up to see the defending World Champions tangle with El Rey. Hernandez and Sox starter Jose Contreras blaze through the first seven innings, allowing just eight hits between them in a scoreless tie.

The Pale Hose threaten in the bottom of the 8th, putting runners on 1st and 2nd with one out. Scott Podsednik strides to the plate. The crowd stomps and hollers, sensing weakness in the young righty and a chance to win the game. Pitching coach Rafael Chaves has already visited the mound earlier in the inning, and the M’s don’t want to pull Hernandez, meaning a second visit isn’t in the cards. The dugout signals to Mariner catcher Kenji Johjima, a hard worker who’s made great strides in bonding with the Mariner pitching staff, to go talk to the young ace. Both men have picked up some English, at least enough to communicate simple instructions. Johjima pats Hernandez on the back, pulls him aside, and makes a sharp, downward motion with his right hand. Hernandez looks at him quizzically. The noise level has reached a deafening tone. “Sinker,” Johjima blurts to his pitcher, covering his mouth to guard against South Side spies. Hernandez nods and Johjima returns to his squat.

Normally a patient hitter, Podsednik’s got orders to swing early in the count against Hernandez, given how tough the pitcher can be once he gets ahead. Sure enough, the pitch is a fastball right down the middle of the plate. Or so Podsednik thinks. Just as he loads up to take his swing, the ball drops from thigh level to below the knees. Podsednik, already committed, pounds the ball on two hops to Lopez at second. Defensive whiz Yuniesky Betancourt makes the smooth pivot at the bag, gunning out the speedy Podsednik by half a step. Hernandez points at Johjima, then back at Betancourt. All three pump their fists. A Richie Sexson homer in the top of the 9th puts the M’s ahead, and the 1-0 score holds up, giving Hernandez his third win a row.

June 1, travel day: The Mariners return home after a successful 4-2 road trip against the Twins and Rangers. The buzz on the flight back is all about Hernandez. Facing a potent Texas lineup the night before at the hitter’s haven in Arlington, King Felix punched out nine Rangers in 7 2/3 frames, leading the M’s to a 4-1 win. That capped a phenomenal May, in which the King went 6-0 with a 1.42 ERA in six starts, including his first major league shutout against the overmatched Twins May 26. After landing in Seattle, the news arrives–Hernandez is the runaway winner of the AL Pitcher of the Month award. His line for the season: 8-1, 2.24 ERA, 77.2 IP, 80 K, 22 BB, 3.05 GB/FB ratio. Led by Hernandez and the improved play of Lopez, Soriano and center fielder Jeremy Reed, the M’s are just one back of the division-leading A’s.

June 6 vs. MIN: After taking three out of four from the Royals, the M’s head into this game deadlocked with Oakland atop the division. Mariner fans are excited about their team, and especially about their pitcher, the Cy Young front-runner through the season’s first two months. Hernandez steamrolls the Twins for 8 2/3, then allows a two-out single, bringing the tying run to the plate in Justin Morneau.

All year long, Hernandez’s lights-out performance has tested the discipline of the Mariner coaching staff, who want to protect their franchise player’s valuable 20-year-old arm but also find themselves locked in an improbable early pennant race. The M’s continue to prevent Hernandez from throwing his slider, a pitch rumored to be devastating if only he were allowed to break it out. He’s also never been allowed to go the distance in a major league game.

Chaves and manager Mike Hargrove shuffle to the mound. They talk briefly to Hernandez, look back at Johjima, then steal a glance at the 37,194 fans who’ve shown up on a random Tuesday night to see The King in action. Chaves motions to Hargrove, who nods, then sticks out his right hand to ask for the ball. Hernandez frowns, then slaps the ball into the manager’s hand a bit too forcefully. Peeved that he won’t be allowed the finish the game after 105 pitches and 26 outs worth of scoreless ball, Hernandez takes two steps toward the dugout, sulking. The crowd greets him with a thunderous ovation, and the pitcher suddenly snaps out of his scowl. He tips his cap, and the throng roars its approval. Eddie Guardado gets Justin Morneau to fly out to right, and the Mariners win 2-0. The A’s fall to Cleveland 6-4. Seattle is now in first place.

June 7, a few hours before game time: Sports Illustrated calls. The magazine wants to do a big feature on the Mariners, and they want Hernandez as their cover boy. The team offers its full cooperation.

June 14 at OAK: The Mariners have lost four out of five games since agreeing to the SI cover story. The magazine hits newsstands, and a sense of panic quickly spreads among Mariner fans–it’s the SI curse! The M’s drop that night’s game to Oakland, falling to three behind the division-leading A’s, just ahead of the Rangers and Angels.

June 29 at ARI: Hernandez runs his winless streak to four starts, suffering a 5-4 loss to the Diamondbacks that drops his record to 9-3, with four no-decisions. His line for June: 1-2 with two no-decisions, a 4.41 ERA, and the first signs of wavering control in Hernandez’s big league career. Derek Zumsteg hops a flight to New York, then marches on the Time Life building. SI editors look down onto the street below, bemused.

July 4 vs. LAA: Having failed to sell out Safeco Field on Opening Day, the Mariners finally fill the park for their July 4th tilt against the Angels. It’s Hernandez who delivers the fireworks, posting the first complete-game shutout of his career, a 5-0, 98-pitch gem. As the M’s head into the All-Star break, it looks like the shackles may finally be coming off their prized pitcher.

July 11, MLB All-Star Game: Johan Santana gets the nod as All-Star Game starter, disappointing some who hoped to see Hernandez become the youngest pitcher ever to start in the game. The first arm out of the bullpen in the 3rd inning, Hernandez retires six of the seven batters he faces, with four strikeouts. Adam Dunn‘s corkscrew whiff on a 2-2 curve gets replayed on SportsCenter 1,478 times.

July 31 at BAL: With the non-waiver trade deadline just hours away, the Mariners are officially in limbo, leaving General Manager Bill Bavasi and his staff in a tough spot. Sitting 6 ½ games out of first, in third place, Seattle is too close to contention to fold, too far from first to sell off prospects for stretch-run vets. The M’s pick up Chris Hammond on the cheap from the Reds, but otherwise stand pat.

Aug. 2 at BAL: Hernandez leaves the game against the Orioles complaining of a sore shoulder. Mariner fans hold their breath.

Aug. 4 vs. OAK: The M’s place Hernandez on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to his last start. The team calls the pitcher’s injury a “tired arm,” noting that tests all came up negative, and that Hernandez just needs a couple weeks of rest. On pace for 218 innings pitched, it’s a move that could provide valuable recovery time. Skeptics wonder if something more sinister may be afoot.

Aug. 18 at LAA: The Mariners announce that Hernandez will not return from the DL in time to make that night’s scheduled start against the Angels. The news elicits some praise for the Mariners’ patience with their cornerstone pitcher. The M’s have fallen to 10 games back and are all but out of the race. But Hernandez sits at 12-4 with a 3.10 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning. Santana and Randy Johnson have run out ahead of the pack in the Cy Young voting. But Mariner fans, frustrated over the team’s downturn, are itching to see their star come back and try to crack the top five.

Aug. 22 vs. NYY: The Mariners activate Hernandez from the DL, and his first start back will be against Johnson and the Yankees. The team considered holding Hernandez back a few days, but the Red Sox figured to be no easier task later that week, prompting the heavyweight pitching tilt against the Bombers. Hernandez goes 5 2/3 innings, yielding two runs on six hits and leaving with a 3-2 lead. It’s an effective, if labored effort, with the pitcher showing signs of rust. But the fans at Safeco applaud Hernandez’s efforts, giving him one of their loudest cheers of the season. The M’s win 5-3, with Hernandez moving to 13-4.

Sept 29 vs. TEX: In his next six starts following the win over Johnson and the Yankees, Hernandez regains his velocity, movement and command, improving each time out. As he takes the mound for his last start of the season, it’s clear he’s back to his old, dominating self. Seeing his health restored, Chaves works with Hernandez on the side, tweaking his approach slightly. Hernandez’s mechanics aren’t quite perfect, and the M’s pitching coach wants to see his young pupil become more consistent at repeating his delivery. He also talks game strategy with Hernandez, who’s proven a pleasant surprise with his eagerness to learn.

Cruising along after two innings against Texas, Hernandez bounds into the dugout, where he’s met by Chaves. In a lowered voice, the coach relays instructions to his pitcher. Hernandez and Johjima huddle, and agree to carry out Chaves’ plan if the situation presents itself. Taking the mound in the top of the 3rd up 1-0, Hernandez gets into a jam. The Rangers load the bases with two outs, bringing up Teixeira. The Rangers first baseman has put up a stellar year, topping 40 homers and ranking near the top of the league in several offensive categories. He’s a fearsome hitter with few weaknesses. Teixeira works the count to 3-2, bringing the crowd to its feet. Johjima flashes the sign. Hernandez goes into the stretch, rears back and fires…

Hernandez will go on to finish the 2006 season with a 17-6 record, a 2.92 ERA, 196.1 IP, 201 K, 59 BB, 14 HR allowed and three times as many groundball outs induced than flyball outs. He’ll finish 3rd in the Cy Young voting, trailing only Santana and Johnson, beating out the likes of Roy Halladay and Rich Harden. The Mariners will finish last in the ultra-competitive AL West, but still notch their first above-.500 season in three years, at 82-80. But it’s the pay-off pitch to Teixeira in the third inning of Hernandez’s last start of the year that will leave Mariner fans pining for more in 2007.

Slider. Strike three.

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