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

December 11, 2012 at 8:56 AM

Greinke signing highlights Mariners’ dilemma with Felix Hernandez

felixrules.jpg

(Photo by Getty Images)

Felix Hernandez is the best thing the Mariners have going for them. He’s their best player, their most popular player, and their most marketable player (and it’s not even close in any of the three categories). He’s shown himself to be not just an ace pitcher, but a fierce competitor who is a perfect role model for every other pitcher on the staff. And, to cap it off, he’s a great teammate, one who has never once complained publicly, or even shown any visible frustration, about the woeful lack of offensive support he’s gotten.

King Felix is also the Mariners’ biggest dilemma, and two events this week just underscore the daunting challenge they face. One, of course, is the Zack Greinke signing by the Dodgers, for six years and $147 million. I’ll bet your first reaction was the same as mine: Well, Felix’s asking price just went up. Ken Rosenthal theorizes that Hernandez — who will make $20 million and $20.5 million in 2013 and ’14 in the final two years of the five-year, $78-million contract he signed in 2010 —Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw are now certain to make $30 million a year in their next contract. All three have arguably better credentials than Greinke, and as KJR’s Mitch Levy pointed out on Twitter last night, Felix will be 28 when (if?) he hits the market, while Greinke is 29.

This shouldn’t come as a total shock, or even much of a surprise, really. Jon Heyman had predicted that Greinke’s contract could come in as high as $175 million because of the bidding war between the Dodgers, who have surpassed the Yankees as the most profligate team in MLB, and the Rangers. Heck, as this article points out, the Dodgers might actually have done the Mariners and other teams with superstar pitchers a favor by not cracking the $25-million-a-year barrier. Greinke checks in at $24.5 million in annual value, just ahead of CC Sabathia’s former standard of $24.4 million (though Sabathia’s $161 million deal still stands up as the most lucrative overall for a pitcher).

Matt Cain got $21.25 million per year last season (six years, $127.5 million) from the Giants. Cole Hamels got $24 million per season (six years, $144 million) from the Phillies. The market climbs ever upward, especially when you have a team like the Dodgers, rolling in the anticipated revenues from that reported $6 billion (with a “b”) television package, throwing out money with little reservation, or qualms about what it means for the rest of the league. I asked Jack Zduriencik yesterday if he was concerned that the Greinke deal would be used as a barometer by Hernandez’s representatives.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “I don’t have an answer to that right now, because it just happened last night, but we’ll see.”

Zduriencik also said of the Dodgers, “They could be an outlier. You always have those. You always have clubs that exceed what most people are capable are doing. I think they’re doing that. If I’m not mistaken, I heard last night they’re going to set a record for the highest payroll in major-league history. They did what they have to do and other clubs are going to have to operate under the budgets they have. If the Dodgers have jumped out as far as they’ve jumped out, that’s the Dodgers. Not everyone is capable of doing that.”

There’s also the age-old question, of course, of the wisdom of giving one player, even one as great (right now) as Hernandez. Joe Posnanski has an illuminating article today about the fickle nature of great players, looking back at the top 10 players from 2009 — just three years ago, which he ranked at the time as:

1. Albert Pujols

2. Joe Mauer

3. Hanley Ramirez

4. Zack Greinke

5. Chase Utley

6. Alex Rodriguez

7. Tim Lincecum

8. Dan Haren

9. Johan Santana

10. Roy Halladay

All have huge contracts — and Posnasnki comes to the valid conclusion that none of them currently warrant them. He also concludes that Greinke probably won’t be worth his contract either. He looks at all the long-term, huge-money pitching contracts over the years — from Mike Hampton to Barry Zito — and discovers, as everyone who undergoes this exercise does, that many, if not most, have been busts. Posanski writes, “I would again ask the question that is often asked here: Is it really a winning strategy to give a veteran star a long-term contract?”

That underscores the tough situation the Mariners are in. They fully realize the importance of Hernandez to the organization — both on the field, and to the fans. They can see how the market is developing, and how retaining Hernandez will likely cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million a year — maybe a little less if he gives them a hometown discount. And they know, historically, the risks of such a massive contract.

Which brings us to the other key event of this week vis a vis Felix Hernandez— the trade of Tampa Bay pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals for blue-chip outfield prospect Wl Myers (the No. 3-rated prospect by Baseball America) and three other prospects: right-hander Jake Odorizzi, left-hander Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard. The reaction of many analysts is that the Royals were fleeced. Keith Law of ESPN wrote, “For Tampa Bay, this is a heist, a potential franchise-making deal that should allow the Rays to continue their run of contention on a dime for several more years as they acquire a centerpiece bat in Myers, a potential mid-rotation starter in Jake Odorizzi, and two other prospects, none of whom has more than a few days of major-league service — meaning the Rays get six years of club control of each of them.”

Variations of that sentiment were echoed across the internet. But the Royals were dead-set on getting an ace, and Shields fit their bill. So it’s fair to ask, if Shields, who is not nearly the pitcher Hernandez is (and four years older, but also with two years left before free agency), warrants that package of prospects as the centerpiece of a deal, then what would Hernandez get? Of course, this question has been posed for years, much to the irritation of Mariner fans, who rightfully resent the implication that the Mariners don’t “deserve” Hernandez. But as Hernandez’s contract ticks away, and the cost of re-upping him skyrockets, it’s a question that gets more valid by the day.

The Mariners are said to be in contract talks with Hernandez’s people, with whom they have a great relationship. Hernandez, by all accounts, loves it here. But is there a point at which the smartest play is to get a vast haul for Hernandez now, when weighed against the massive public-relations gain they’d get from re-signing Hernandez that comes attached to the tremendous risk of a $150-million-plus contract?

I’m not sure anyone knows the answer to that. Hernandez might be that rare pitcher who stays great into his 30s. Or he might be the best he’s going to be right now. Could anyone have guessed, just a year ago, that Tim Lincecum would end the 2012 season as a middle reliever, with his future as a top-tier starter in serious question? The injury question looms as well with any pitcher. The Mets thought they were getting a sure thing when they traded for Johan Santana and gave him a six-year, $137.5 million extension. And then he had shoulder surgery, and now he’s a shadow of his former self.

It’s an agonizing dilemma for the Mariners, made all the more poignant by their decline in popularity, and their low standing in the estimation of their fans, who would certainly view a trade of Hernandez in a highly negative fashion. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out — and the moment of truth is rapidly approaching.

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