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

December 9, 2011 at 10:01 AM

Trading Felix Hernandez is not something Mariners can afford to do

felixtrade.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

These are troubling times for Mariners fans. On one front, they’ve just seen the Angels land Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and establish themselves as a power in the American League. On another front, there’s still speculation the Rangers could get involved in the Prince Fielder bidding, but even if they don’t, the Rangers as constituted are good enough to contend for a third AL pennant in a row. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of skepticism that the Mariners have the stomach or the dough to pull off a Fielder deal, and that even if they can summon both, that Fielder would not want to come here.

On top of all that, there’s this story today from the Los Angeles Times that explains a lot about the Angels’ spending spree, and is yet another ominous sign for the Mariners down the road. Turns out the Angels have a new television deal with FOX, said to be worth at least $3 billion over the next 20 years. The Rangers already worked out their lucrative 20-year television contract last year, set to kick in after the 2014 season for a reported $1.5 to $1.6 billion. The Mariners have a very nice television contract but not in that stratosphere. It was a 12-year deal signed in 2007 (starting last season) that runs through 2020 for what was reported at the time as “more than $450 million”. In other words, a fraction of what the Rangers and especially Angels will be getting per year if the reports are all accurate.

The upshot, in some quarters, is the assumption that the Mariners — last-place finishers in six of the past eight seasons — will be unable to compete with the elite in the division in the near future. And that has lead to the resumption of an ongoing meme: That the Mariners should trade Felix Hernandez. Just today, David Schoenfield of ESPN pondered that very question, which I threw out almost exactly a year ago.

It was a hot-button item then (just read the comments), and it’s a hot-button item now. But Geoff has been persistent in making this valid point: Hernandez is signed now for three more years; if you have a team that you don’t believe is going to contend for one or two of those years, or if you’re not willing or able to make the acquisitions that would make them contenders, does it make sense to keep a No. 1 pitcher making about $20 million a year? Or, as Schoenfield writes, “do you trade Hernandez now, when his value his highest and his arm healthy?”

That line of thinking makes intellectual sense, and baseball sense. Yet I just don’t think — and my point of view has changed on this — that the Mariners can afford to take the psychic hit that would come with a Hernandez trade. He is not just their best player at the moment, by a longshot; he is also their most popular player, by a longshot. Both those roles might have once been filled by Ichiro, but those days are gone. Felix is the smiling, charasmatic, butt-kicking face of the franchise, and if he is gone, what do they have left, except an entire fan base convinced that the team has thrown in the towel?

Sure, that could be overcome with a trade package teeming with talent — and Felix Hernandez at age 25 with three years of cost certainty is one of the greatest trade chips in baseball history. The theory is that one superstar could be swapped out for three or four stars, thus accelerating the rebuild. The role model is the Rangers’ trade of Mark Teixeira, with two years left on his contract, to the Braves for a package that included three hugely influential players in their World Series runs — shortstop Elvis Andrus and pitchers Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison. In fact, one of the keys to the trade from Texas’s perspective was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a very highly regarded prospect who was supposed to be their catcher of the future. Saltalamacchia didn’t pan out and was traded to the Red Sox for more prospects, but the deal was a huge success for Texas. Then again, Teixeira’s departure didn’t leave the Rangers bereft of established stars. They still had Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, and Nelson Cruz (on his way to becoming a star).

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether the Mariners can afford Prince Fielder. I think they can. What I don’t think they can afford is the backlash from a Hernandez trade. It should be pointed out here that this speculation has been mostly media and fan drive. Jack Zduriencik has been steadfast in maintaining that Felix is going nowhere, reiterating that point this past week in Dallas. But, as I wrote last March, this issue isn’t going to go away as long as the Mariners struggle in the standings.

Obviously, it’s a moot point if they land Fielder. They’re not going to bring in Prince and trade King Felix. But if they don’t land Prince, and then trade Felix, Safeco Field might be empty next year. By the time they’re good again, the fan base might have shrunk so much that it never comes back en masse. The Cleveland Indians experienced that phenomenon during the Eric Wedge regime.

There’s still plenty of time to consider a Hernandez trade down the road if the Mariners’ situation gets more dire. Now is not the time.

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