BY John Hickey 07:38AM 02/03/2011

Felix only part of answer to M’s leadership void

The ace can help pitchers, but M’s need a position player to take charge

Felix Hernandez wants to be one of the Seattle team leaders / Getty Images

At 16, he was considered one of the best pitching prospects in the game.

At 19, he was starting in the big leagues.

At 20, he won a dozen games.

At 23, he was an American League All-Star, a 19-game winner and the runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting. He was one of the best 23-year-old athletes on the planet. And one of the richest, too, signing a five-year, $78 million contract a couple of months before his 24th birthday.

At 24, he won the Cy Young Award, pitching great baseball for a terrible team.

So at 25, in 2011, what does life hold for Felix Hernandez?

How about team leader? Hernandez, who doesn’t actually turn 25 until the second week of the season, would be one of the youngest mentors in the game.

Yet it’s hard to see many in the game who would be more qualified. He’s also started 172 games, 31 more than oft-injured veteran Erik Bedard and almost twice as many as the other three likely starters coming out of spring training – Doug Fister (38), Jason Vargas (65) and Michael Pineda (zero) – combined.

Let’s face it. The Mariners need leadership, and Hernandez isn’t backing down from the challenge.

“I’m the leader right now,’’ Hernandez said without bragging, and it’s not hard to agree with him given that some of those who have provided leadership in recent years – Cliff Lee and Jarrod Washburn among them – aren’t Mariners now.

He then talked about the way that Joel Pineiro, Eddie Guardado and Jeff Nelson reached out to him when he was new to the game and showed him the ropes. Already Hernandez says he wants to take Pineda under his wing.

“I want to talk to him,’’ Hernandez said. “There were a lot of guys who made me comfortable. I’d like to do that for him and make sure he keeps working hard.’’

That being said, Hernandez isn’t going to overstep his boundaries. Being a leader of the pitching staff is one thing. But he could win 30 games and not be the kind of leader the Mariners need, and he knows it.

“I don’t want to be a leader of the whole club,’’ he said. “I’m only out there once every five days. That’s not enough. You need a guy who is out there every day. I like the way Ken Griffey Jr. did it.’’

The Mariners don’t need Griffey, exactly, but they need someone. Seattle needs a position player to take charge, someone who can take a player aside when needed to push or cajole. Someone who can be in control of the clubhouse.

Right now, they don’t have that. They do have leadership on the field with right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, but he doesn’t have the inclination to be a clubhouse leader, and that’s just the way it goes. When you have someone with Ichiro’s work ethic, his desire to play 162 games and his passion for conditioning, those are on-the-field leadership qualities that are very much in demand.

But in-clubhouse leadership is not his strength. The trouble is, it’s not high on the resume of any of his teammates, either. And that’s going to be an on-going problem for Seattle, which has more than its share of issues in other quadrants. The light-hitting and relatively inexperienced Mariners don’t need to have problems in this area, too.

No one knows that better than new manager Eric Wedge, who admitted over the weekend he’s not sure where the leadership will come from in the 2011 Mariner clubhouse.

“Leadership is tough to come by,’’ Wedge said last week. “Young people just aren’t real comfortable being in that role, for the most part. But we will develop leaders here. We will have leaders on this ballclub, whether it’s by the young people we have now, or maybe the veterans, or the people we go out and grab. Maybe it’s somebody in the minor leagues who just isn’t here yet.

“We will have leadership on this ballclub. You have to have leaders to be a good team.’’

General manager Jack Zduriencik is concerned about the leadership issue, too. Back in December he signed designated hitter Jack Cust to hit homers and drive in runs, but also because he was something of a leader.

There’s no way to know if he can develop that portion of his game in Seattle.

But it would be a huge bonus if he can, because it’s a skill his new team needs badly.

John Hickey is also Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)

Twitter: @JHickey3


YourThoughts

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  • Hansville Pasta Boy

    I hope Cust will help- but that remains to be seen. My dream for 2011 is that $12 million salary motivates Chone Figgins (age 33) to become a team leader. Yeah OK, I can dream can’t I ?