I was going to do my list of the 10 worst off-season transactions today, but I’m going to push it back to next week, since I have some things to say about yesterday’s news.
The Mariners are apparently set to sign Felix Hernandez to the largest contract ever given to a Major League pitcher. The total commitment is $175 million over seven years. It’s a staggering amount for a guy who wasn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2014 season, and in many ways, this contract is the continuation of the trend that we saw begin last year with Joey Votto‘s deal with the Reds. Here’s what I wrote a year ago when that deal was announced:
So, at this point, we have a couple of options – we can continue to be shocked and amazed at the growing rate of contracts that guarantee big money to players from 2018 and beyond, or we can adjust our expectations for what premium players are going to be able to command going forward. With the promise of new money flowing into many organizations over the next three to five years, I’d imagine we’ll see more and more teams being aggressive in trying to lock up their young stars before they get to free agency and have to bid against whichever franchise just happened to renegotiate their television contract a few months prior.
For the Reds, the equation was pretty simple – keep Votto and contend during the run-up to the expiration of their television deal, or trade him away, rebuild, and come to the table asking for more money after a couple of years of going young and probably taking their lumps. Given those options, giving Votto a couple of extra years at the back end to increase their bargaining position doesn’t look quite so crazy.
This deal is going to have lasting repercussions on the sport. Not only does it suggest that the Reds are going to remain competitive in the NL Central going forward, but it also resets the price expectations for every pre-free agent player in the sport. Congratulations, players, all of your expected prices just went up. Way up.
Felix’s deal with the Mariners is the pitcher’s version of Votto’s deal with the Reds. It’s a free agent price for a pitcher who wasn’t a free agent, and in that sense, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that it’s too much money. The Mariners are taking on significant additional risk by guaranteeing him his 2015-2019 salaries now, and like with Votto, that risk wasn’t offset by getting a below market price on the deal. Given the history of pitcher attrition, there’s a significant chance that this deal will go south for the Mariners, and they’ll end up with an expensive and overpaid former ace. Most good young pitchers don’t turn into good old pitchers, and the Mariners have just made a huge bet on Felix being the exception rather than the rule.
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