At present, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw are three of the very greatest starting pitchers in the game. They’re also all two years away from free-agent eligibility, so there’s been talk of long-term contract extensions. Dave wrote about this subject last month, and he estimated that Hernandez could end up with a seven-year commitment worth about $150 million. That would be five years at $22 million apiece, attached to the end of the two years for which Felix is already signed.
Thursday has brought news of no confirmations. However, it’s also brought a report out of USA Today that Hernandez and the Mariners have agreed to terms on a seven-year deal worth $175 million. Follow-up reports say it isn’t official, and that there are still some little issues to work out, but the hard part looks to have been conquered. While the numbers might change a bit, it seems this should get finalized, and Hernandez should end up with a five-year contract extension, plus raises in 2013 and 2014. What we’re looking at is a seven-year commitment to a pitcher with a $25 million average annual value.
The years are right on what people have been expecting, but the money’s a little higher — certainly higher than Dave’s estimation. A seven-year, $175 million contract would be the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher, although that doesn’t take inflation into account. Zack Greinke recently signed with the Dodgers for six years and a $24.5 million average annual value. CC Sabathia‘s five-year contract with the Yankees has a $24.4 million AAV. Cole Hamels‘ six-year contract with the Phillies has a $24 million AAV. The money for Felix isn’t far off, although it is interesting that he’d be signing for this much still two years away from what would’ve been the end of his previous contract.
On talent, Hernandez is worth the money. Over the past three years, he ranks sixth in baseball (among pitchers) in RA9-wins, between Cliff Lee and David Price, and he ranks third in FIP-based WAR, between Lee and Roy Halladay. With some good starting pitchers, it isn’t clear whether or not they ought to qualify as “aces”. “Ace” is a subjective label, in that it doesn’t have a strict definition, but everybody recognizes that Hernandez has been an ace, and he’s still considered one now. He’s a couple months away from his 27th birthday.
By looking at the money, one might conclude that Hernandez didn’t give the Mariners a hometown discount, in the way that Jered Weaver re-signed with the Angels for less than he deserved. The Mariners are basically signing Hernandez for free-agent money, two years away from free agency. But here’s the key to that sentence: the Mariners are signing Hernandez. The “hometown discount” is that Hernandez was willing to re-sign with the Mariners in the first place, despite the fact that they’ve been so mediocre for so long. The Mariners have made countless statements regarding their intent to keep Hernandez around. The feeling has been mutual, and now Felix will be remaining in place while making enough money to create a respectable college through which he could later put his kids.
For Verlander and Kershaw, this obviously matters, because it sets some sort of level of expectation. While Verlander is older than Hernandez, he’s also been better, so his agents could use this as a baseline. And Kershaw is with the Dodgers so I don’t know if they even negotiate, instead just handing over a checkbook and a pen. Since Hernandez is reportedly signing for more than people expected, this is a good day for Verlander and Kershaw, and a less good day for the Tigers and Dodgers.
We’re left with the matter of considering a seven-year commitment to a pitcher. And not just a seven-year commitment — a commitment worth an incredible sum of money, taking up a significant fraction of the Mariners’ present and future payrolls. There’s no question that most long-term commitments to pitchers in the past haven’t worked out great. I don’t need to sit here and cite examples, but there are fewer examples of successes than there are examples of failures. We just the other day saw Brandon Webb close his own book. Chris Carpenter is probably finished as a baseball-playing professional. Pitchers are risky, and when pitchers break down — which they frequently do — there’s never any certainty they’ll be able to recover and be effective, let alone as effective.
You just can’t project these things. Felix is still, today, relatively young. Is that good or bad, when it comes to predicting his future? Felix is an established workhorse, reliably piling up the innings and the pitches. Is that good or bad, when it comes to predicting his future? Felix has never suffered a major throwing-arm injury. Is that a sign of durability, or a sign that he’s due for some problems?
Sometimes pitchers are Greg Maddux, and sometimes they’re not. I do know that there aren’t any concerns about Felix’s health right now, as he’s been thoroughly checked out by the team. That early-season velocity scare from 2012 is ancient history. But what Felix is now means only so much when it comes to knowing what Felix will be in a year or in six years. Presumably, he will be monitored very closely, but there’s only so much you can do with regard to injury prevention.
One thing working in the Mariners’ favor is that I’m guessing teams are smarter about pitchers now than they ever have been in the past. We should, in theory, see a reduced number of major pitching injuries over time. There’s also the matter of Hernandez’s pitch diversity, as he throws a handful of quality weapons. One thing we can be almost sure of is that Hernandez will continue to lose fastball velocity, but because his other pitches are so good, that shouldn’t destroy him on its own. All of his individual pitches are good ones.
And one thing we haven’t touched on, because it’s difficult to quantify, is Hernandez’s meaning to Seattle. His loyalty, and peoples’ loyalty to him, has value, of some amount. He’s the face of that franchise, and he’s the one superstar on a team of half-decent veterans and potential up-and-comers. We don’t know what it would mean to the Mariners’ books were they to let Felix go, but it probably wouldn’t mean anything good. Hernandez adds value and appeal to a franchise that needs as many fans as it can get.
If this reported deal is true, Hernandez’s side should be thrilled, because it’s landing the biggest pitcher contract ever. The Mariners’ side should also be thrilled, because the team’s locking up one of the game’s greatest talents. There are tremendous, impossible risks here, and this most certainly isn’t a bargain. But this is something that felt like it had to be done, so upon finalization, Hernandez will be further on his way to being a Seattle Mariner for life.
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