Thursday, February 7, 2013

Felix Hernandez and Seattle Make a Commitment

Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball and still just 26 years old, has reportedly agreed to a new contract with the Mariners that will lock him through 2019 and pay him $175 million. USA Today's Bob Nightengale first broke the news, reporting that the new deal would start immediately, replacing Hernandez's old contract, which ran through 2014. That would be an AAV (annual average value) of $25M for the next seven years. Later, ESPN's Buster Olney reported the previous deal is still in place, paying Felix $39.5M over the next two years, with a $135.5M extension added to it, an AAV of $27.1M from 2015-2019. Either way, the total money and AAV will both be the highest ever for a pitcher.

A deal like this is a massive gamble for a team, especially a team that isn't among the deepest-pocketed members of Major League Baseball. Seattle's average payroll over the last five seasons was ~$97.5M. Felix's new number is more than 25% of that figure. On the other hand, their payroll is sure to rise in the coming years, as new TV money rolls in. Starting in 2014, every MLB team will be getting an additional $25M a year, because of new deals with Fox, TBS, and ESPN. The Mariners' local TV contract is up at the end of 2014. That will be another windfall, potentially a very big one. It's reasonable to think Seattle will have a payroll of something like $125M a year between now and 2019. Hernandez's contract won't be as big a chunk of that figure.

Also, the cost of players is always going up. Seven years ago, the highest AAV for any pitcher was $15.1M. It seemed outrageous to many at the time, but since then 21 different contracts have topped that figure for pitchers and this off-seasons $15.1 a year wasn't enough to sign Anibal Sanchez, seen by most as a strong #3 pitcher. My point being, by the time 2019 actually rolls around, $25M isn't likely to seem like a ton of money for a good pitcher, let alone a great one, and Hernandez is a great pitcher. If every pitcher's contract were torn up, I think the only candidates for receiving the largest deal would be Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and Stephen Strasburg. If you're going to hand a pitcher $175M, Hernandez is a great choice. He'll still only be 33 when the deal ends, the same age Roy Halladay was in 2010 when he was a unanimous choice for the N.L. Cy Young Award. If Felix is even 75% the pitcher he's been over the last seven years, he'll be worth this contract.

Still, $175M is a ton of money and the list of biggest contracts ever given to pitchers is littered with names like Mike Hampton, A.J. Burnett, and Barry Zito, names that didn't come close to earning what they were paid. Many of the biggest contracts handed out have happened too recently to really be judged yet, but of the nine that have paid pitchers an AAV of $16M more and have ended (or are ending in 2013), only CC Sabathia's 2009 deal with the Yankees can be considered a success for the team that gave it out. Felix has thrown a ton of Major League innings for someone only 26 years old (1620.1). Is his arm going to fall off?

Here are the ten other pitchers since 1969 (when the mound was lowered) who've thrown 1400+ innings through their age 26 season: Bert Blyleven, Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Vida Blue, Frank Tanana, Dennis Eckersley, Mike Witt, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Maddux, and CC Sabathia. Six of those ten averaged 169 or more innings over their next seven years, meaning they were basically healthy. Maddux was the best pitcher on the planet over his age 27-33 seasons, he had one of the greatest 7-year stretches by any pitcher in history during those years (1993 to 1999). Sabathia (through five of those seven years) and Blyleven were also good enough to be worth what Felix is going to be paid. 3 out of 10 isn't so great, but if I were a Mariner fan. I'd be willing to roll the dice with those odds (not that the ten-pitcher sample I used in any way means his odds of being worth it are exactly 3 in 10).

The un-quantifiable X-factor is what Felix means to Seattle fans. I'm not sure who first joked about sports fans basically rooting for laundry (because players come and go, only the jersey remains the same). There's some truth to it, but it overlooks the connections from one season to the next. Those connections can come from the camaraderie between friends, from cheering the team on, celebrating big wins, and drowning sorrows together. Those connections also come from the players wearing that laundry, especially the special few great ones a team develops over the years.

As an Indians fan I've gotten to watch Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and CC Sabathia, each go from draft pick, to unproven rookie, to MVP candidate with the Tribe. It's an impressive list... impressive and disheartening, because I've also had to watch each of them leave the team as a free agent, or be traded away because everyone knew they were going to leave soon. I had to watch Manny and CC celebrate World Series championships with other teams. Losing a player like that is depressing, it can make following the team feel like a waste of time.

After averaging over 40,000 fans a game from 1995 to 2002, they've averaged just 23,000 over the last decade, since Thome followed Belle and Ramirez out of town. Much of that is due to the team just not being as good, but even when they finished with the best record in baseball in 2007, they only got back to 28,000 a game. Part of that drop is also due to economic changes in the Cleveland area, but I think some fans had just lost interest by then, and their interest hasn't returned.

Seattle has its own list, with Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez both exiting while in their prime. Hernandez's own eventual departure has been the subject of speculation for years, with the New York media and fans wondering why it was taking so long for him to become a Yankee. I imagine that in recent years Mariners fans, hectored about their one remaining star, often felt a sense of futility... except on the days when Felix is on the mound. On those days, like August 15th last year, when Hernandez struck out 12 while pitching the 23rd perfect game in Major League history, there's been no better team to root for. Ownership knows this is no sure thing, they must have their doubts. For the fans though, I don't know that you can put a price on the joy Felix brings. Hernandez's page at Baseball-Reference is sponsored by the community at Lookout Landing, the most popular Mariners blog in creation. The banner they've paid to have up there reads, "Felix is ours and you can't have him."

My t-ball team was the Indians, I loved wearing my jersey with the team's name across the front, and in time it just sort of stuck. So you could say I quite literally became an Indians fan because of laundry. None of the players from the 1986 Indians are still on the team, but Julio Franco and played with Greg Swindell, who played with Albert Belle, who player with Jim Thome and Kenny Lofton, who played with CC Sabathia, who played with Grady Sizemore, who played with Carlos Santana. I can easily trace a path back to my six-year-old self, sliding into third base at Maple Park.

Hernandez is halfway to the Hall of Fame, and now he'll try to make the second half of the voyage right where he's always been. In another couple years, he'll have no competition for the title of greatest pitcher in franchise history. His contract is a big risk for the Mariners and if he breaks down in the next year or two, Seattle fans will have to live with the knowledge that his contract is keeping the team from being able to make a lot of other moves. They'll be hard pressed to compete with his salary on their books unless he continues to be a dominant pitcher, and his entire career has shown there's no guarantee they're a contender even with him pitching well. Still, I applaud this signing and if I were a Mariners fan, I'd be turning cartwheels.

Felix is theirs, and no one else can have him.

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