By Marc Normandin
"King Felix" was a title bestowed upon Felix Hernandez, like so many kings before him, before he actually earned the moniker. Now, though, about to ink a seven-year, $175 million contract that makes him the richest pitcher in the history of baseball, it's clear Felix's achievements have earned him that crown, dominion over Seattle and all the wealth that comes with it. As one of the great stand-up philosophers of our time once mused, it's good to be the king.
His people love him, in a way that comes off as extreme even for the fan base of a professional sports team. It's understandable, though: he was presented as a savior at the tender age of 19, and followed through on that promise immediately by posting the best ERA+ of any 19-year-old ever with at least that many innings (84) notched. He's continued that excellence to this day, as he's one of just 10 starters with at least 1,000 innings and a 125 ERA+ since 2005, and the only one of the bunch still in his 20s. His mid-20s, if you really want to rub it in to old men Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver, both of whom will be 30 years old in 2013.
All the while, the Mariners have been terrible. The highest they've placed relative to their competition in the last five years came when Fangraphs erroneously awarded them the title of the sixth-best organization in all the land heading into 2010, and the only reason they're unlikely to finish in last in 2013 is because the league brought the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, in to the AL West fold. If anything, this only increases the adoration Mariners fans have for Felix: set adrift in a sea of hopelessness, Hernandez has been a shining beacon to show them the way every five days. The problem being, of course, that having hope only every fifth game tends to result in last place finishes.
That's the past, though, and what a seven-year contract means for both the Mariners and Hernandez is a shared future. This leads to the obvious question: was this the right deal for the Mariners to make?
You can make a case convincingly in either direction, but the short answer -- as crazy as it might seem to lean in favor of a long-term, record-setting pitcher contract given all that could go wrong -- is yes. Mariners fans haven't had much to smile about since nearly a decade ago, when they finished at 93-69 and in second place in the AL West. Since then, they've compiled a .443 winning percentage and lost over 90 games five times in nine attempts, with two of those years clocking in at over 100 losses. Prospects have continually disappointed; the young players acquired in trades, like Justin Smoak, have failed to develop; and while the farm system is in good shape, that's a tough sell for a fan base that's expectation for underachieving is essentially Pavlovian at this point.
Retaining Hernandez is a simple way to bring joy to the masses, and, given his relative youth and level of excellence, it can be described as a sound baseball decision as well, rather than just as a crowd-pleasing job saver for general manager Jack Zduriencik, who is in the final year of his deal. That's not to say the latter doesn't play at least a small part; it's much easier to sell the fans -- as well as potential free agent signings -- on the team's future with Hernandez than without him.
There are two significant reasons why prettying the place up for free agents matters. For one, the Mariners struck out on every free agent of consequence this off-season, despite interest in the likes of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher. Pulling in the fences wasn't able to counter what we can only assume is Adrian Beltre's telling of anyone who would listen not to sign on for long-term deployment in the hitter's hell known as Safeco, and until players start to produce there with some regularity, that's unlikely to change.
That's one reason why the Mariners bothered to bring in Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales via trades, as, even though the two are in town for just a year, they can prove the environment has changed with strong offensive campaigns. Combine that with the knowledge that Felix is going to be around for six more years after 2013, and all of a sudden, Seattle's money starts to look a little less dirty to worthwhile free agents.
The second reason is that the Mariners just haven't been able to develop any of their own hitting talent. Smoak has been a bust. Dustin Ackley has yet to show he's much of anything against major-league pitchers. Jesus Montero might end up becoming a legitimate bat, but he might also be a designated hitter -- and if that's the best they can do, then the issues aren't going away anytime soon. There are plenty of pitching prospects on the way, and some new position player prospects to throw against the wall, but with the way things have gone as of late, the Mariners need to keep that free agency window open wide if they plan on hitting in the near future.
They'll be able to afford Hernandez, additional free agents and extensions for their own hitters in the future if it comes to that, though, as the Mariners are in line for their own new television deal by 2015, thanks to an opt-out clause. Hernandez still had two years remaining on his contract before signing this new one, and the upgrade to the seven-year iteration only cost the Mariners $11 million in the interim, assuming the average annual value is a static $25 million per year throughout. From 2015 onward, they can pay his way with glorious television money, which, if the deals of the Angels, Rangers, Padres, Dodgers and so on are any indication, there will be more than enough of.
$175 million, and $25 million per year, seems like a ton of money on the surface. Here's the thing, though: Hernandez's deal, while a record for a pitcher, is only the ninth-highest total of guaranteed money in the game. At "just" seven years, it barely enters the conversation for what long-term, elite-level contracts amount to these days. In a world where players in their 30s like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez are getting 10-year deals, and catchers and shortstops with injury histories like Joe Mauer's and Troy Tulowitzki's are also involved in that game, seven years for one of the game's greatest hurlers doesn't seem so crazy, especially given his durability, youth and the importance he has to a franchise that can afford to splurge.
Salaries are ever-escalating, too, in no small part thanks to Major League Baseball making more and more money with each passing season, and clubs inking those lucrative television deals. The new collective bargaining agreement, with its emphasis moved even deeper into the pockets of union members in the majors rather than on the draft and international signings, encourages teams to spend and spend on proven products. Throw in that the cool (and smart) thing to do these days is to lock up your best young players long-term before they can leverage free agency against their clubs, and Hernandez's deal, contextually, makes sense all around.
Evan Longoria, David Wright, Ryan Braun and the aforementioned Tulowitzki and Mauer all could have signed for much more money had they held on for free agency. But that's assuming things would have worked out: they all gave up potential money for guaranteed money, much like Hernandez likely gave up his chance to be baseball's first $200 million arm by signing now. On the other hand, he's going to get $175 million even if his arm falls off before he hits 2,000 career innings, so you can see where this theme still benefits the players.
Is it a risk? Absolutely: pitchers are fragile creatures, and while past durability can be a positive, it can also be viewed negatively. The cynic in every baseball analyst and fan can see this as the time bomb that is starting pitcher Felix Hernandez just having a longer fuse than most of his peers.
Here's the thing, though: Trying to limit risk doesn't mean you can never take any, and the Mariners are well past the point of playing it safe. Signing Hernandez, even if it seems regrettable by the start of the next decade, can do a lot of good for this franchise in both the short- and long-term. That makes the question of whether it's justified simple to answer.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, and also contributes to Baseball Nation. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter @Marc_Normandin.