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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 3, 2009 at 4:06 PM

How high should the Mariners go to keep Felix Hernandez?

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Geoff dropped a bombshell on his blog today with word about a three-way trade discussion involving Felix Hernandez, Adrian Gonzalez and a slew of Red Sox prospects. If that doesn’t get the blogosphere humming, I don’t know what will.

As I speculated almost a month ago, Felix’s unsettled contract situation is going to have ramifications sooner than people think. Obviously, it’s happening already, and until Hernandez signs a long-term deal that keeps him in Seattle beyond his first crack at free agency after the 2011 season, it’s going to continue to be THE Mariners’ topic. Like it or not.

The Mariners’ next job, clearly, is to put everything they have this offseason into locking up Hernandez to a long-term deal. Dave Cameron wrote recently on USS Mariner that it would take somewhere in the neighborhood of four years, $60 million to get Felix signed to a deal that buys out his final two years of arbitration and his first two years of free agency. That sounds reasonable if Hernandez decides to go for some instant security while still leaving himself open to a huge free-agent payday at the relatively young age of 27, after the 2013 season.

I’d say there’s probably a 50-50 chance, maybe a bit less, that Hernandez would take something like that. His other option, of course, is to keep going year to year and get to free agency as quickly as he can. Especially now that’s he’s so close — the rest of this year, and two more seasons. Then Hernandez would reap the benefits of the mega-payday that will certainly be coming his way, barring a major injury on his part or financial ruin within the industry.

At the point the Mariners believe this is Hernandez’s path, and nothing can deter him, that is when they would be motivated to seriously consider moving him. And that day could come sooner than Mariners fans want to believe. We’ll get a good picture this winter when the two sides continue to try to hammer out an agreement — this time with more urgency than has previously existed.

Hernandez as a free agent could well set financial records, if he keeps progressing as he has this season. C.C. Sabathia set the new standard for pitchers this past winter when the New York Yankees gave him a seven-year, $161-million contract. It’s conceivable — probable, in fact — that Hernandez on the open market would command even more than that. He would be just 25 and already established as one of the elite pitchers in the game when he hits free agency.

The question I’m posing today is whether it would behoove the Mariners to get into the kind of bidding it would take to retain Hernandez if he rejects the shorter package. Even this offseason, with two year before free agency and no other teams to offer competiton, Hernandez could no doubt command a monumental long-term package from the Mariners if he decides to go that route.

My feeling is that a contract in excess of $100 million for ANY player is fraught with danger. But especially pitchers.

There have been 19 contracts of $100 million-plus in baseball history (seven by New York teams, no surprise). Here they are:

1. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (10 years, $275 million; 2008-2017).

2, Alex Rodriguez, Rangers (10 years, $252 million; 2001-2010).

3, Derek Jeter, Yankees (10 years, $189 million; 2001-2010).

4, Mark Teixeira, Yankees (eight years, $180 million; 2009-2016).

5, CC Sabathia, Yankees (seven years, $161 million; 2009-2014).

6, Manny Ramirez, Red Sox (eight years, $160 million; 2001-2008).

7, Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (eight years, $152.3 million; 2008-2015).

8, Todd Helton, Rockies (11 years, $151.5 million, 2001-2011).

9, Johan Santana, Mets (six years, $137.5 million, 2008-2013).

10, Alfonso Soriano, Cubs (eight years, $136 million; 2007-2014).

11, Vernon Wells, Blue Jays (seven years, $126 million; 2008-2014).

12, Barry Zito, Giants (seven years, $126 million; 2007-2013).

13, Mike Hampton, Rockies (eight years, $121 million; 2001-2008).

14. Jason Giambi, Yankees (seven years, $120 million; 2002-2008).

15, Carlos Beltran, Mets (seven years, $119 million; 2005-2011).

16, Ken Griffey Jr., Reds (nine years, $116.5 million; 2000-2008).

17, Kevin Brown, Dodgers (seven years, $105 million; 1999-2005).

18, Albert Pujols, Cardinals (seven years, $100 million; 2004-2010).

19, Carlos Lee, Astros (six years, $100 millon; 2007-2012).

Of all those contracts, I’d say in just two cases did the team handing out the money have absolutely no regrets — Pujols and Jeter, both of whom have one more year left after this one. They have stayed healthy and performed well throughout the deal, Jeter’s defensive slide notwithstanding. Pujols led the Cardinals into two World Series and won one title. Jeter hasn’t brought the Yankees a title during the contract (he won four previously), but they got into two World Series and have been consistent contenders. Jeter remains the most popular player in New York.

You can’t knock Ramirez’s performance for the Red Sox — they won two World Series on his watch — but because of other issues, the Sox couldn’t ship him out of town fast enough last year.

Of the non-pitchers, I’d say that the Reds certainly came to regret the Griffey deal, as have the Rockies with Helton (they tried to trade him to the Red Sox in 2007 to get out from under his contract), the Yankees did with Giambi, and unquestionably the Rangers with A-Rod. The Yankees, meanwhile, have reaped some great production from Rodriguez, but the recent steroids revelations have cut into their ability to market him, and he’s still got those horrible postseason numbers hanging over him. Vernon Wells can still turn things around, but he’s looking like a huge bust these days. Lee has performed well, but as SI.com’s Jonah Freedman points out in this examination of $100-million deals, Lee’s contract is heavily backloaded. He is owed $55 million over the next three years, severely hamstringing the Astros’ efforts to build the club around him. Beltran has also been a fine player for the Mets, but he is 32, and the Mets have been in the postseason only once in his tenure. I have a feeling the Cubs aren’t going to be too happy to pay Soriano $18 million every year between 2010 and 2014. It’s too early to make a judgment on Teixeira or Cabrera.

Getting to the pitchers, it’s been pretty much a disaster. Hampton was a huge bust. Brown had some moments of brilliance for the Dodgers, but it’s hard to argue he lived up to his contract. Zito was a poor pitcher in his first two years with the Giants and has been only a little better this year. That deal could wind up being a monumental albatross for the Giants. Santana has pitched up to his high standards for the Mets; we’ll see how that deal looks, moving forward. It’s too early to judge Sabathia.

This column by John Donovan, also on SI.com, evaluates long-term deals for pitchers and concludes that they’re a risk not worth taking. In general, pitchers given huge contracts have tended to break down, under-perform, and not lead their teams to the success anticipated.

Ah, but those are mortal pitchers. We’re talking about Felix. The King. The greatest phenom of our generation…or something close. And still young enough to wipe away all the doubts that plagued other pitchers. Surely, he’ll be the exception that proves the rule. Right?

That’s easy to say when you’re on the outside looking in. But when it’s your money that’s being put up, it’s going to take some extraordinary faith and soul-searching to OK the sort of deal — in excess of $150 million, no doubt about it, and probably at least seven years — that it’s going to eventually take to land Felix Hernandez when he hits the open market. Or to keep him from hitting the open market.

I’m not sure the Mariners — who lucked out when Barry Zito turned down their $100 million or so offer — have the stomach for that. And as undeniably great as Hernandez is, and could be in the near and distant future, I understand their hesitation. Yet they’d also hate to watch Felix become a Hall of Famer in someone else’s hat. Mariners’ fans would never let them forget it.

It’s a dilemma that will play itself out in the coming month, with numerous potential twists and turns. The journey has already started, in fact. It should be an exciting and dangerous ride.

(Seattle Times photo by Ken Lambert)

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