The Mariners, Felix Hernandez, and a risky contract extension

Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE

There's risk in the extension, but there might have been just as much risk in the Mariners not extending Felix Hernandez.

Felix Hernandez has reportedly signed a new contract for seven years and $175 million, buying out the last two years of his current deal. I'll start by placating the old-school grumblers and the new-school kids.

For the old-school grumblers: Can you believe someone is getting that much money to play a game? Do you know how much Tom Seaver made in his career? Just under $6 million. And Hernandez is getting how much? Grumble grumble grumble.

For the new-school kids: That money was just going to go to Nintendo if it didn't go to Felix Hernandez, and they would have used it to design a controller that lets you run video games with your tongue, while being too family-friendly to explore all of the possibilities. So, like, whatever. Good for Felix.

Everyone in between: Sweet dancin' Clampett, that's a lot of money.

I mean, just a ton of money. And it's for a long, long time. When you start thinking about the nature of pitching, and what generally happens to pitchers over time, it's hard to be optimistic about any long-term deal for a pitcher. The sage advice and dire warnings of one Rob Neyer come to mind:

Whoever pays Félix Hernández will probably -- not certainly, but probably -- wind up paying all that money not for what Hernández will do, but rather what he's done already.

That's not being cynical. That's not being a grumpy Gus. That's just how it is. Go through a list of pitchers who have had an ERA under 3.00 over consecutive seasons, and notice the ones who didn't make it to 30. Brandon Webb never threw a pitch in the majors after turning 30, to give but one timely example.

But pitchers will still get these contracts because, well, someone's going to pay that much. Teams spend what they think they can afford on payroll, and they spend to improve their team. Getting new pitchers is a way to improve a team. The logical conclusion: teams will still keep taking the risk. It's not like the Dodgers are naïve about Zack Greinke's potential to bust, just as the Giants might have been a little nervous that Barry Zito wasn't really the super-ace they were hoping for.

The Felix Hernandez contract falls in a separate category. It carries the same risk as the Greinke or Zito contract, but it fills a void that was also fraught with peril, which is the risk that Felix would leave and be successful elsewhere. If the Dodgers didn't sign Greinke, they would still have about seven viable starting-pitcher candidates. Business would go on as usual. If the Giants didn't sign Zito, they wouldn't get the bunt heard 'round the world, but obviously no one would have known that. The Giants would have patched the rotation in a different way, and no one would be the wiser.

Imagine, then, if Felix Hernandez pitched the second half of his career with the Angels, and pitched it well. Just like Steve Carlton with the Phillies, or Seaver with the Reds, suddenly a star player becomes the property of two different team histories. It wouldn't just be a bummer for Mariners fans. It would be a public-relations disaster, season after season, with implicit and explicit messages sent to Mariners fans with every new Felix success.

"We didn't have the money, so we might not have it the next time we have a pitcher like Felix."

"We didn't think keeping Felix Hernandez was important."

"We didn't think Felix would keep being good, and we're probably not going to take that chance on any homegrown fan-favorite if they're that expensive."

Hernandez would be a walking anti-marketing campaign. And it's not like the money saved on not extending Hernandez would be magically applied to the payroll in exactly the right way, with $5 million going to the first baseman they needed, $6 million going to a bargain starting pitcher, et cetera. The Mariners would still be spending that money, and they would still be taking risks with it. They would be different risks, but the money would still be invested in baseball players, which are risky investments by definition, except they wouldn't have the buffer of the money going to a franchise icon.

The Dodgers would have paid Hernandez not for what he will do, but rather what he's done already. The Yankees would have paid Hernandez not for what he will do, but rather what he's done already. The Mariners are paying Hernandez because it's a part of the unspoken contract between a mid-to-large-market team and its fans -- If you love a player, if you consider a player an integral part of the franchise's history, we will keep that player.

And Mariners fans are kind of nutty for Felix Hernandez:

Screen_shot_2013-02-07_at_1

Screen_shot_2013-02-07_at_1


Right now, he is the Mariners, just as he was two years ago, and just as he could be two years from now. Letting him slip away and star somewhere else would have been devastating. Now, I'm not smart or learned enough to know exactly how many dollars that public-relations devastation would cost. It's not $175 million worth of devastation, that's for sure. But it could very well be worth the difference between what a team should feel comfortable with when it comes to committing to a pitcher, and the contract that Felix eventually secured.

All pitchers are risky. All baseball players are risky. Felix Hernandez is risky. Watching him do his thing until he's 40 with another team would be gross. And discouraging. And even costly. So the Mariners took the risk. They didn't have much of a choice, and Mariners fans are pretty danged glad about that.

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