February 8, 2013
Reportedly set to re-sign RHP Felix Hernandez to a seven-year extension worth $175 million. [2/7]
By signing Hernandez to the richest pitcher contract in history, the Mariners are taking on a staggering amount of risk. By signing Hernandez to this deal two seasons prior to his date with free agency, the Mariners are opening themselves up to relentless second-guessing. And by signing Hernandez to this deal the Mariners took the only real way out—that seems to be one of the big defenses, at least.
Hernandez means a ton to the Mariners fan base—perhaps more than any other team's most-talented player. If you know the Hernandez mythology then you know Hernandez snubbed the Yankees and additional dollars for the Mariners as an amateur. (He's since snubbed free agency twice now in order to remain in Seattle.) In return the Mariners faithful have done what people living in dire conditions throughout history have done: anoint the most powerful amongst them king and then celebrate his presence every fifth day with costumes and songs. Giving Hernandez this deal isn't just about keeping him happy, but about keeping his fans—his people—happy, too. A royal life, indeed.
Uncertainty is the other main defense point about the timing of the new deal. Picture this scenario: Hernandez compiles back-to-back Cy Young consideration-worthy campaigns in 2013 and 2014, and then hits the open market. What dollar value would he receive then? We don't know and we'll never know, unless the Mariners reveal Felix2 at some point in the future. We can get a decent idea if Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw take their stabs on the free-agent market. But otherwise this is all guesswork.
While those are understandable defenses, there are points on the other end of the spectrum worthy of consideration. The big one is that durable pitchers also break. Credit the universe's sense of timing for seeing Hernandez sign a blockbuster deal during the same week Brandon Webb retires and Chris Carpenter's playing career is put on halt. The Webb news in particular is concerning. He was, much like Hernandez, a top-three talent with a roaring streak of 200-plus inning seasons. He threw four innings in 2009 and never pitched in the majors again.
Okay, so Hernandez's career is unlikely to follow the same path. History does tell us, however, that Hernandez is unlikely to continue tossing 230 or more innings per season. Since 1990 only five other pitchers have pulled the feat in four straight seasons. Only three did it in five. None did it in six. Lower the innings threshold to 200 and 18 pitches have strung together six straight seasons of 200 innings. Maybe Hernandez will join both fraternities in due time; maybe he's Greg Maddux. But what if he's not?
Here is what both sides can agree on: Hernandez remains remarkably young; he'll turn 34 the season after this contract expires. He's been a workhorse, and he deserves all the superlatives he receives. If you had to pick a pitcher to make a lengthy commitment to then Hernandez is on your short list. Likewise, Hernandez is on your short list for the Cy Young award. Here's one more point everyone should agree on: The Mariners are taking a huge risk with this deal. They're betting on Hernandez the person, on his body, and against bad luck. Trading Hernandez, or allowing him to leave via free agency, probably never felt like feasible options to the Mariners; this extension working out might not feel like a feasible option either, depending on your perspective.