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January 11, 2010 at 6:47 AM

Felix Hernandez clock is ticking towards a resolution — one way or the other

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Loved this little item in the Boston Globe over the weekend, which got everyone all excited locally but really doesn’t tell us anything new. Yes, the Mariners have stepped up talks with Felix Hernandez. Jack Zduriencik told me last week — and will tell anyone who cares to ask — that he’s had multiple discussions with Alan Nero, agent for Hernandez, since the winter meetings ended.
This is normal. Hernandez is due a raise through arbitration. He will earn roughly $10 million this coming season. The way it works is that his side will ask for a certain amount of money, the M’s will counter (both sides can exchange figures by Jan. 19), then an arbitrator decides in February which amount to award. Unless, of course, the two sides reach an agreement beforehand, which usually happens in these things. And that is one of two big reasons why the two sides have stepped up talks as spring training nears. Don’t forget, we are now only five weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting.
Here is the second, more important big reason.
Despite attempts by both sides, mostly Hernandez’s, to play down the urgency of this matter, if Hernandez is going to sign a long-term deal, then the team needs to get it done before the regular season begins.
Here is why.

Most players don’t like to negotiate in-season and the M’s certainly do not want their staff ace — one of two, anyhow — heading into April with the distraction of a prolonged contract negotiation hanging over his head.
For all of the moves made by the M’s this winter, the whole plan falls apart if Hernandez shows up and lays an egg. It is assumed he will deliver Cy Young Award quality stuff and you start to bet against that happening (or at least risk making things harder on yourself) if you drag contract talks beyond this winter. Besides, there is no guarantee Hernandez would allow talks beyond this winter.
Can the M’s shelve talks until next winter and hope for equal value in a trade if it all falls apart?
Absolutely not. We’ve discussed this ad nauseum since last July’s trade deadline, when we told you of teams lining up to take a crack at Hernandez — including the Red Sox — because they know exactly the timeframe the M’s are working under here.
If the M’s head into the regular season without a long-term Hernandez deal done, then the odds go up dramatically that he will be traded by July 31.
The M’s simply cannot afford to gamble on him signing a year from now. Do that and they will lose substantial leverage should they have to rush and trade him next winter. Once again, look at the Roy Halladay situation in Toronto. The Blue Jays and their new GM, Alex Anthopoulos, did a commendable job of salvaging that potential disaster with a three-way deal, but still arguably got less than they could have by moving Halladay last summer. And there were a ton of sleepless nights in between when it seemed they would do far worse than they actually did.
The Mariners do not want that here.
They know that if they have to trade Hernandez, the best time will be this coming July. That way, the team dealing for him will know they are getting Hernandez’s services for at least two potential playoff runs, hence, making him more valuable and driving up the cost of acquiring him. Wait until next winter, and the team acquiring him only gets Hernandez for one potential playoff run before he’s eligible for free agency. Ergo, his value and cost should theoretically be less. So, you sign him now or you deal him come July. There really is no middle ground as far as getting the best potential trade return goes.
Now, of course, if the M’s are leading the division come July 31, they might have no choice but to take some potential trade losses and hang on to Hernandez through 2010. That’s the way things go sometimes. But that’s a whole other part of the equation. Right now, the team would prefer to keep its best chances open at maximizing value in the event Hernandez does not ink long term.
And since the M’s don’t want their staff ace distracted by contract talks in-season, the time to work out the parameters of a deal is right now.
Tick, tick, tick…
So, to summarize, the two sides have to get a deal done this off-season. Maybe it gets announced in April, the way the Kenji Johjima contract was two years ago after the meat of the talks were finalized in spring training (Nero was also the agent in that one). But if this thing drags past mid-April with no announcement, it could be time to start bidding Hernandez adieu.
Sure, the M’s could hope to make the playoffs, maybe win the World Series and then see whether Hernandez, fresh off that victory, would be more compelled to remain. But you’re getting into Russian roulette territory there, since, there would be very little wiggle room, Hernandez would have all the contract leverage and his rotation buddy, Cliff Lee, would also be getting just about set to walk as a free agent.
Want to lose both Hernandez and Lee in one off-season? Neither do the M’s. Zduriencik is a guy who takes calculated risks. He doesn’t engage in brinkmanship. Riding to the edge of a cliff on a bus driven by Lee and Hernandez isn’t his idea of a good time. Better to get the question marks out of the way now.
So, to summarize, that Boston Globe item is completely accurate on the timetable. Yes, the M’s hope to get something done this off-season. Because if they don’t, there is no time left to revisit the issue once Opening Day rolls around. By then, it will be on to Plan B.
Oh yes,one more thing, just to clarify this so we don’t have to keep revisiting it the next month: David Aardsma is about to become quite wealthy. There are no ifs, ands, or buts attached to it. Aardsma had a great year and he’s arbitration eligible. He will get a healthy raise. Mark Lowe will get a nice raise as well, though not as big. Aardsma had better numbers, including the “saves” that help judge these kinds of things in arbitration cases.



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