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

July 26, 2012 at 1:17 PM

Hamels deal has ramifications for Felix Hernandez’s future

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(Photo by Getty Images)

The signing of Cole Hamels on Wednesday to a six-year, $144-million contract was great news for Phillies fans. But for Mariners fans, it was an ominous development.

Not that anyone thought locking up Felix Hernandez was going to be cheap. Not when in April, the Giants’ Matt Cain signed an extension for six years and $127 million. But the Hamels’ signing is just another reminder of what sort of commitment — financial, and in years — it’s going to take for whomever winds up signing Hernandez to his next deal. Because here’s the bottom line: Hernandez is arguably better than both those pitchers, not to mention almost every other one in MLB. And in 2015, when he starts his next deal, Hernandez will turn 29 in April — the same age Hamels will be next year when his deal kicks in.

Right now, of course, there is considerable debate over whether the Mariners should trade Hernandez, perhaps as soon as next week’s non-waiver deadline. But perhaps the more pertinent debate is whether it would be wise for the Mariners to give Hernandez the contract he has coming to him, by virtue of established industry standards and his own body of work. Because, obviously, the two debates are intertwined. If the Mariners conclude, for whatever reason, that they can’t, or won’t, re-sign Felix, then it would be incumbent upon them to pursue a trade.

The latter debate — should, or should not, the Mariners re-sign Hernandez? — is not an easy one. Actually, it’s an excruciatingly difficult one, because we’re talking about a pitcher — a fragile, unpredictable species. Looking at the history of pitchers in Hernandez’s stratosphere shows just how risky such long-term deals can be. Johan Santana had credentials comparable to Hernandez’s with the Twins when the Mets traded for him and locked him up to a six-year, $137.5-million deal when Santana, too, was 29. For the first two-plus years of the deal, Santana was excellent, but then his shoulder acted up, requiring surgery, and he missed all of 2011. Santana bounced back this year to pitch pretty well, and even had a no-hitter — but has faltered since then (a 6.54 ERA in his last three starts).Santana just went on the DL with an ankle injury the team believes has contributed to shoulder fatigue. He can be good again, of course, but will Santana be the Santana of old for the duration of the contract? Doubtful.

It’s rare to get consistently good production for the entire body of a long-term contract, even for pitchers with impeccable credentials. It just is. Here is a list of the biggest contracts ever given pitchers (courtesy of the Cot’s Baseball Contracts website. The team listed is the one that issued the contract):

C.C. Sabathia, Yankees: 7 years, $180 million (2009-16)

Cole Hamels, Phillies: 6 years, $144 million (2013-18)

Johan Santana, Mets: 6 years, $137.5 million (2008-13)

Matt Cain, Giants: 6 years, $127.5 million (2012-17)

Barry Zito, Giants: 7 years, $126 million (2007-13)

Mike Hampton, Astros: 8 years, $121 million (2001-08)

Cliff Lee, Phillies: 5 years, $120 million (2011-15)

Kevin Brown, Dodgers: 7 years, $105 million (1999-2005)

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs: 5 years, $91.5 million (2008-12)

Right off the top, I’d rate Zito and Hampton as total busts, and Brown and Zambano as partial busts. Too soon to tell on the others, though so far, so good on Sabathia.

And here they are ranked by average annual value:

Roger Clemens, Yankees: $28 million (2007)

Sabathia: $24.4 million

Hamels: $24 million

Lee: $24 million

Santana: $22.9 million

Clemens, Astros: $22 million (2006)

Cain: $21.25 million

Tim Lincecum, Giants: $20.250 million (2012-13)

Roy Halladay, Phillies: $20 million (2011-13)

Zambrano: $18.3 million

Zito: $18 million

Jake Peavy, Padres: $17.3 million (2010-12)

Jered Weaver, Angels: $17 million (2012-160

Those numbers lead us into another difficult question, which is how much of the Mariners’ payroll should be devoted to one player, even a great one like Hernandez. This year, the Mariners are paying Hernandez $18.5 million, and until Monday, were paying Ichiro $17 million. That’s $35.5 million out of a total payroll of about $84 million — 42 percent. History has shown that devoting that much to one or two players is not conducive to building a winning team. But to bring Felix back would likely require, based on the progression of salaries we’ve seen given to elite pitchers — Hamels’ being the latest example — a deal that averages at least $25 million a season, almost certainly for at least six years.

Would that be wise for a team like the Mariner, who unlike the Yankees or Red Sox, can’t afford a whiff on a contract that large? As great as Hernandez has been and continues to be, he has been a workhorse in his six-plus seasons. That’s part of what makes him great. But you also have to wonder how much of a toll all those 200-innings seasons will take on his arm. Already this year, we’ve seen decreased velocity, though it hasn’t seemed to affect his performance. But those are legitimate questions to ask as you ponder whether to give out an astronomical contract. And they are questions that have to be answered soon, because with Hernandez’s current deal ending after the 2014 season, the time to begin negotiations on an extension — or ponder the dreaded trade — are rapidly approaching.

The Mariners, of course, also have to consider the public reaction to either scenario. Although trading Hernandez, who would be a hugely coveted player, could make strong baseball sense, it would also alienate a certain portion of the fan base. To think otherwise is naive. The reaction would be something along the lines of, “Same old Mariners. Can’t keep their great players.” But do you sign a risky contract just to appease the fan base in the short term, and possibly pay a huge price in the future? On the other hand, maybe Hernandez is one of those rare pitchers who will stay great into his 30s — like the tall lefty who will be honored on Saturday, Randy Johnson. In 1999, Johnson signed a four-year, $52.4-million free-agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks — huge money in those days. And he won four Cy Young Awards in those four years, at age 35, 36, 37 and 38. I rate it as the best contract in free-agent history for a pitcher.

So that’s where the Mariners stand right now. They know it will be insanely expensive to re-sign Hernandez, but also incredibly risky. They know that they will alienate some fans if they don’t, but that it could lead to disaster if they do and he gets hurt early in the contract. But a re-signed Hernandez could also be the cornerstone piece of the glory years they keep promising us are right down the road, a symbol that ownership is indeed serious about building a winner, and willing to pay the price.

Let the debate begin.

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