NORTH PORT, Fla. — Felix Hernandez turned around with surprise as he sensed members of the media waiting to engage him Thursday at his locker.
"You want to talk to me?" the new Atlanta Braves pitcher asked.
Yes. Former Cy Young Award winners have a way of drawing interest.
The presence of "King Felix" is one of the early subplots for the reigning National League East Division champions. Free-agent acquisition Cole Hamels, pegged No. 4 in the team's rotation, may miss three weeks of camp due to shoulder soreness and won't be available at the start of the season. There already had been an expected battle for the No. 5 spot among Hernandez, Sean Newcomb, Josh Tomlin and Kyle Wright.
Atlanta pitchers and catchers worked out for the first time Thursday. Position players aren't required to be in camp until next week.
The last two spots in the five-man rotation are important because the Braves will hit the ground running with their regular-season schedule. They open at Arizona on March 26, which will start a stretch when they have just one day off in their first 25 games.
"I'm not concerned," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "We're farther along than a year ago when we had injuries to our starting pitching. We have 160 more innings of experience, so we're better served to fill those roles than last year."
A smiling Hernandez said he's healthy and has dropped a few pounds.
"I feel really good, no complaints; now I have to go out and do my thing," said the former Seattle Mariners ace, who is still listed at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds on the Atlanta roster.
From 2009 to 2015, Hernandez was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He won 104 games in that stretch, threw more than 200 innings each of those seasons and ranked in the top 10 for American League Cy Young Award voting seven times.
In 2010, Hernandez became a Cy Young Award winner after he threw almost 250 innings while having an ERA of 2.27. He walked 70 batters and struck out 232.
"It's going to be cool to watch him," said 22-year-old right-hander Mike Soroka, Atlanta's likely starter on opening day. "You see what he did every year. He pitched 240 innings. He has a chance to be in the Hall of Fame. And he still wants to be out there."
However, the past two years have been rough for Hernandez, who turns 34 next month.
After going 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA in 155 2/3 innings in 2018, Hernandez went 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA last season, which ended a 15-year-run with the Mariners, the only MLB team he had ever played for. Hernandez said a muscle strain on his right side caused more problems than his shoulder.
"I was not healthy," he said. "Let's forget about it; it's in the past. New organization, new team."
A one-hour talk with Braves general manager Alex Anthopolous motivated Hernandez to sign.
"He told me the truth and straight to my face, what's going on," Hernandez said. "He told me about veterans like (Anibal) Sanchez and (Anthony) Swarzak. He said, 'You've got a chance to be in the playoffs, make the World Series.' It's a great group of guys with a great reputation."
Hernandez never has pitched in the postseason.
"That's the plus," he said. "For me, it's about making the playoffs. These guys, they're really good.
"It's tough for Hamels. But I just have to go out and do my thing."
Hamels recently informed the Braves' medical staff of the shoulder discomfort he felt after completing weighted-ball drills. The 36-year-old is in Dallas undergoing treatment with noted surgeon Keith Meister.
Newcomb said he has been preparing to be a starter all offseason. After making 30 starts in 2018 and going 12-9 with a 3.90 ERA, the former first-round pick pitched just 68 1/3 innings last year after struggling with his control.
Wright made four starts last season and went 0-3 with an 8.69 ERA.
Tomlin, 35, signed a minor-league deal Wednesday. Last season in 51 appearances that included one start, Tomlin had a 3.74 ERA. He opted to re-sign with Atlanta after not receiving the guaranteed deal a couple of other teams were pondering offering him as recently as Tuesday.
Tomlin will once again attempt to present the Braves a long-relief option if he's not a starter.
New Braves catcher Travis D'Arnaud said he has a lot of learning to do after signing a two-year, $16 million deal with the team in the offseason.
"I've seen the video, so I've seen the potential," D'Arnaud said of Atlanta's pitching staff. "It's more about communication and finding out their thinking on the mound, how they execute their pitches and use other pitches to get outs."
D'Arnaud hit .263 with 16 home runs and 67 RBIs last season for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Ready to go
Although position players don't need to be in Northport until Tuesday, outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. not only arrived early but told a translator he wants to have the first 50-50 season in MLB history.
The 22-year-old from Venezuela was voted the National League's top rookie last season after hitting 41 homers and stealing 37 bases, despite missing the final week of the season due to injury.
Said Acuña: "I don't want to stay complacent."