Everybody says the Mariners have to pay Félix Hernández $175 million. Just have to.
For all their money, the Yankees can't get King Felix.
It's a constant concern in baseball, which operates without a salary cap and with a severely uneven financial playing field. But what has happened in the game is that the revenues have grown dramatically all over the game, to the point where small- and mid-market teams can and do keep many of their stars.
Not all of them, for sure. Albert Pujols left the Cardinals. Prince Fielder left the Brewers (but they kept Ryan Braun). The Indians traded away CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee rather than lose them.
But Joey Votto stayed with the Reds. Joe Mauer stayed with the Twins (who now no doubt wish he hadn't). Cole Hamels stayed with the Phillies (who aren't exactly small-market but were supposed to have trouble keeping him away from all the Dodger dollars).
Now Felix stays in Seattle.
Yes, it's heartening that the Yankees won't be getting King Felix. Not for a while, anyway. It's pretty silly to assume that Hernandez will never be a Yankee. For one thing, he'll be only 33 when his new contract runs out. For another, while he'll reportedly have a complete no-trade clause, that doesn't preclude him agreeing to a trade to New York.
It's funny, though, how everyone just assumed that if the Mariners didn't lock up Hernández, he would wind up with the Yankees. As if every premier free agent signs with that club. Here's a list of players, just in the last three winters, who have not signed with the New York Yankees: , Albert Pujols, , Prince Fielder, , , , , , , , Cliff Lee, .
The biggest free agents signed by the Yankees in that span: Rafael Soriano, Hiroki Kuroda, and Kevin Youkilis, with the latter two signing for one year apiece. The Yanks also re-signed a few players of their own, but that's not what we're talking about here. Granted, the franchise has been particularly thrifty lately because of luxury-tax considerations; beginning in 2015, all bets might be off. But the fact is that the Yankees have never signed all the premier free agents. Just because they want a guy doesn't mean that he'll want them, or that another team might want the guy even more than the Yankees do.
Which is a roundabout way of saying this news really isn't about the New York Yankees; it's about the Seattle Mariners, and (almost) only the Seattle Mariners. So what happens if Félix Hernández leaves?
That's a lot more difficult to predict than most of the pundits would have you think.
Some pundits will talk about performance, and the difficulty of winning without Félix Hernández. But we know pitchers get hurt, and that even the best of them are rarely able to maintain their brilliance for 15 seasons, even if they've already got, like Hernández, eight brilliant seasons in the bank.
Some pundits will talk about psychology; the Mariners need to keep Hernández, lest everyone from the front office to the kindergartners become demoralized beyond repair. I guess it's psychology, anyway, as I've not yet seen any evidence that letting one superstar get away materially damages a club's long-term fortunes at the box office.
Did the Cardinals lose their fans when Albert Pujols got away? No.
Did the Brewers lose their fans when Prince Fielder got away? No.
Granted, the Mariners aren't the Cardinals or the Brewers. Both clubs, when they lost their star first basemen, were coming off big seasons and at least one remaining superstar. The Mariners are coming off a number of losing seasons, and attendance has cratered. Without Hernández, the M's would be utterly bereft of stars (for now, anyway; their farm system is loaded).
You can make a case that the Mariners need Hernández to help win games, and to help sell tickets.
You can make a case that the Mariners could be spending that $175 million elsewhere; further that they should have traded Hernández for a passel of hot prospects to bolster an already-bulging list of exciting young players.
I'll make this case: There's been a whole lot of guessing going on. We do know that Hernández has been an outstanding pitcher. We do know that more than half the pitchers with Hernández's approximate track record break down, either gradually or dramatically, within a few years. We can guess that attendance will continue to suffer if the M's don't start winning. We don't know if Hernández will still be pitching brilliantly when the players around him are good enough to win; shoot, we don't know if they'll ever be good enough to win.
We're supposed to make snap judgments. But when people say they know, I don't believe them. Knowing would mean predicting with some precision what Félix Hernández will be doing over the next seven seasons and what his many dozens of teammates will be doing. Well, good luck with that.
If you're a Mariners fan, you probably love the deal. If you're King Felix or King Felix's agent, you definitely love the deal. For the rest of us, it's really too soon to say.