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Hot Stone League

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

January 21, 2010 at 1:40 PM

Five-year contract for Felix is a risk worth taking

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I’m safely returned from a wonderful vacation in Hawaii, tanned and rarin’ to go. OK, not exactly bronze, but at least I no longer have “Seattle legs,” which is the term my sister, a 25-year Honolulu resident, uses to describe pale-limbed tourists. That’s the Makapuu Lighthouse in the picture, where we hiked and saw a few whales frolicking in the water below. It was nice to return to a relative heat wave in Seattle, but I’m still shivering today.

Apparently, the Mariners made some news while I was gone. Something about Felix Hernandez and a long-term contract. To me, for all the acquisitions this winter, from Chone Figgins to Cliff Lee to Milton Bradley to Brandon League to Casey Kotchman, this is the most significant move of them all. Hernandez is the anchor for everything the Mariners are trying to accomplish. If Hernandez had resisted signing an extension, then uncertainty and unease over his future would have pervaded their season. It would have been a dark cloud that could have punctured the feel-good mood that should now prevail in spring training. Instead of worrying whether Felix will be traded — and when — they now know that their ace is here for the long haul. It brings legitimacy and structure to their long-term outlook.

That said, there’s no question that giving a five-year contract to a pitcher — any pitcher, even one as young and supremely talented as Felix Hernandez — is a mighty risk. The Mariners, for a long time, had an unofficial policy not to give a contract longer than three years to any pitcher. They broke that prior to the 2000 season, when Pat Gillick gave reliever Arthur Rhodes a four-year, $13 million deal. Rhodes said the fourth year was necessary to entice him to shun Baltimore’s three-year offer. The gamble paid off, as Rhodes was a solid contributor for all four years — particularly in the middle two seasons. They later gave two starters four-year deals — Jarrod Washburn ($37.5 million) to mixed results, and Carlos Silva ($48 million) to disastrous results).

And now Felix for five years and $78 million. Anyone who has studied long-term contracts for pitchers knows the cautionary tales — the likes of Mike Hampton (eight years, $121 million), Barry Zito (seven years, $126 million), Chan Ho Park (five years, $65 million) and Denny Neagle (five years, $51 million)., all of whom turned out to be, or are in the process of being, disasters of varying degree. Kevin Brown (seven years, $105 million) was good early, then plummeted. The Cubs have to be worried about the downward trends of Carlos Zambrano as he nears the midway of his five-year, $91.5 million deal. Roy Oswalt had a big dropoff last year in the third year of his five-year, $73 million deal. A.J. Burnett didn’t always pitch like a five-year, $82.5 million pitcher last year with the Yankees. Kevin Millwood was only middling in Texas for the first four years of his five-year, $60 million deal (he’s now been traded to Baltimore).

Yet there are long-term deals that pay off. The jury is still out on C.C. Sabathia (seven years, $161 million, the biggest deal ever given a pitcher), but he certainly earned his money in 2009. Johan Santana (six years, $137.5 million) has been a stud for two years with the Mets, even if the team has been a disaster. Mike Mussina was solid for the duration of his six-year, $88.5 million contract with the Yankees.

Felix, however, is a better risk than all of them. For one thing, the others were all free agents when they signed their long-term deals, meaning they already had at least six years of wear and tear on their arms. Felix, at age 23 (he turns 24 on April 8) has merely four-plus years, and no history of serious arm problems. The Mariners — and I give the much-maligned Bill Bavasi regime high marks in this regard — were very careful with his workload in the early years. Yes, he made a big jump in innings from 2008 to 2009 (200 2/3 to 238 2/3), making him a candidate for the dreaded “Verducci Effect.” But as I blogged earlier, there are many examples of pitchers who have not succumbed; indeed, some thrived.

Felix Hernandez is a franchise pitcher, a once-a-generation talent. His best years should be ahead of him, and they have a chance to be among the best years any pitcher has ever had. Sure, the Mariners are taking an expensive gamble that he will stay healthy for the duration of his contract. But letting Felix get away, and watching him thrive with another team, would have been a much greater risk.

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