Hernandez on serious mission

Hernandez on serious mission

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez has heard the words. He has sensed the whispers. He knows some are wondering if his career is on the downswing as he approaches his 31st birthday and comes off a season in which he had some struggles.

"I have to prove people wrong," Hernandez said Tuesday after reporting to Mariners camp with the rest of Seattle's pitchers and catchers for physical exams. "I feel fine. I feel healthy. That's the main thing."

A year ago, Hernandez missed seven weeks with a calf injury and wound up going 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA in 25 starts. His walk rate was at a career high, his strikeouts a career low (122) and his 153 1/3 innings were the fewest the durable right-hander has thrown since his rookie season in 2005.

Felix ends winter league stint

Are people starting to doubt him?

"Sometimes, I think so," Hernandez said. "I don't know why. I'm still here."

And he'll top the Mariners rotation once again, looking to build onto a career that has seen him throw a perfect game in 2012, win the 2010 American League Cy Young Award and earn six AL All-Star berths.

Manager Scott Servais has said Hernandez will be the Opening Day starter for a club-record 10th time on April 3 in Houston, even before the Mariners take the practice field for the first time on Wednesday. Hernandez says he needs to talk to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. to finalize his plans, but expects to make two Cactus League outings before joining Team Venezuela and pitching his country's World Baseball Classic opener on March 10 against Puerto Rico in Jalisco, Mexico.

Felix prepares for the Classic

"It means a lot," he said of competing for his country for the first time since the 2009 Classic. "I think we've got a pretty good team to win the whole thing. We just have to play the right way."

As for his Mariners squad?

"There's a lot of new faces," he said. "I have to sit down and see who the guys are. We look different, more athletic."

Hernandez hopes to be more athletic this year as well, or at least physically stronger. He ratcheted up his offseason program this winter, working out in Miami with "Iron" Glenn Freeman, the same trainer who helped Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz in previous years.

"When I say he worked hard, he worked hard," Freeman said. "If he didn't, I'd have told him. The first day was sketchy, the second day was sketchy. But once he understood what we were doing, he totally bought into it. ... I'm expecting him to at least get Comeback Player this year if not be in the Cy Young competition because he's very, very motivated."

Hernandez said he bulked up with the strength and conditioning and weighs 224 pounds, compared with the 207 pounds he pitched at last season.

"I was too skinny last year," he said.

The added strength could help Hernandez survive the long season and silence the doubters. All he knows is he's ready to roll.

"I feel really good," he said. "I have no problems at all."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.