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February 17, 2013 at 9:36 AM

Mariners owners took first step with Felix Hernandez, but the follow-through will ultimately determine their legacy

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong (left) and chairman Howard Lincoln (right) honor Felix Hernandez after last year’s perfect game. Photo Credit: AP

Read some interesting comments this morning by Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, who told Jerry Brewer that the seven-year, $175 million contract given to ace pitcher Felix Hernandez is a sign the team’s ownership is committed to building a winner.

“This signing, given the size and length of the contract, is the best evidence that the ownership group is committed to winning and doing what it takes to win,” Lincoln said. “It ought to remove any doubts about how the ownership group feels and what its objectives are.”

If only things were that simple.

Lincoln is right about the team’s commitment to Hernandez being huge and, frankly, imperative. For fans desperate for some positive sign from ownership, this was a big step indeed.

But Lincoln sounds as if he believes Hernandez is the cherry on the team’s championship sundae. In reality, Hernandez right now is exactly what he was three years ago, the last time the Mariners gave him an early extension — a true ace pitcher on a fourth-place team. Yes, the Mariners should win more than they lose this year and might even secure 85 victories like they did back in 2009, the last time they didn’t finish fourth. But looking at the AL West on paper, few experts anywhere are going to pick the Mariners to finish any higher than the Rangers, Angels and Athletics in their own division.

And unless the Mariners can beat out two of those teams, they won’t be going to the post-season anytime soon.

To make that jump will require more than just locking up Hernandez. Those lessons of the past three seasons — when the team lost 101, 95 and 87 games, respectively, with Hernandez fronting the rotation — should be abundanty clear by now.

The hard, factual history of this team is that the ownership group touted by Lincoln has been cutting payroll ever since the collapse of the world’s stock markets towards the end of 2008 and the decline in personal wealth of Hiroshi Yamauchi and Chris Larson, the team’s two largest owners with roughly 85 percent combined control. Yamauchi did cede his ownership shares to Redmond-based Nintendo of America prior to that for “estate planning purposes” but retains titular control of the team.

That decision to cut payroll by the Mariners coincided with the collapse of the 101-loss team in 2008 — which cost $117 million to assemble — and has enabled a selective, fortuitous retelling of history where the team is concerned.

Mariners ace Felix Hernandez signs autographs for fans while coming off field in Peoria, AZ this morning.

Cutting payroll in 2009 was, after all, a natural progression as deadwood from the disastrous 2008 squad was jettisoned. Nobody really batted an eyelash when GM Jack Zduriencik began his rebuild with less money than Bill Bavasi had.

But then came the 2009 season, in which the Mariners won 85 games. Rather than rebuilding with youth, as the Mariners now suggest has been the plan all along, Zdurienck traded away young starter Brandon Morrow for setup relief help. He traded three Bavasi era prospects for starting pitcher Cliff Lee when the Phillies star was a year away from free agency. He signed Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36-million deal. Those are not moves made by a rebuilding team, which could have afforded to wait and see whether Morrow or the prospects would pan out. Rebuilding teams don’t take on a guy like Figgins long-term when he’s on the wrong side of 30, even if he was the best third baseman on the market. They get a stop-gap instead.

So, no, these were not the moves of a Mariners team committed to youthful rebuilding. They were the moves of a team that thought it might be able to win something in 2010. OK, fair enough.

Problem is, when it came time to upgrade the middle of a batting order on what had been the league’s worst offense, the Mariners’ ownership continued to cut payroll. And the result of it was, Zduriencik had to go dumpster diving for solutions. He took on the bad contract of Milton Bradley and then paid the Cubs extra in order to unload Carlos Silva as the trade return. He signed Ryan Garko and Eric Byrnes, one of which was gone by May, while the other failed to make it through spring training. The mid-order solutions? Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney, added on cheap, one-year deals.

That’s what the Mariners did. And the big reason was ownership’s decision to cut payroll, leaving Zduriencik unable to add the big bats he wanted for his lineup.

There can be no disputing that version of Mariners history. And it came right after the Mariners extended Hernandez the last time, to the tune of five years, $78 million. Instead of doing “what it took to win” back in the winter of 2009-2010, the team’s ownership — fronted by Lincoln — remained committed to trimming its bottom line. And the on-field result was disastrous.

Today, three last-place finishes later, that payroll is even lower. Part of it is the natural result of the team’s decision to rebuild mainly through youth after collapsing in 2010 and firing the entire coaching staff. The other part has been ownership’s decision the past three winters to systematically allow multi-year deals to expire — the biggest being the five-year, $90 million extension given Ichiro in 2007 — without replacing them with any long-term free agents.

So, that’s where we now stand. As improved as the Mariners could be on offense this coming season, Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are the only players under contract beyond this year (Dustin Ackley signed a small-scale major league deal when drafted, but can opt out once eligible for arbitration). Hernandez is the only player ownership has made a financial commitment to beyond 2014. Hernandez and Franklin Gutierrez are the only players left from the major league roster Zduriencik began the 2009 season with and Gutierrez could be a free agent when this year is done.

Hernandez, Gutierrez and Michael Saunders are the only major leaguers still here who were on Seattle’s 40-man roster to start 2010, the first season after Hernandez’s last big extension. In the interim, despite the three consecutive last-place finishes, the Mariners have seen franchise value soar because of the bottom-line trimming, the shedding of multi-year contracts and an upcoming renewal opportunity for their local television deal.

And while Lincoln insists the Mariners are not “for sale” to ouside buyers, the reality is the team’s own bylaws prohibit this from happening before minority owners and then local groups are given first crack at the team. These days, any novice franchise appraiser can tell you the Mariners have set themselves up as an attractive buy indeed and are prime for a takeover by a minority owner wanting to get his hands on the controlling Yamauchi/Nintendo shares. Or, that owner could stay right where he is and cash-out big after the new TV deal is secured by 2015 and franchise value climbs even more.

So, while the Mariners have indeed made a huge financial commitment to Hernandez, it’s not quite logical to point to this, as Lincoln does, as a sign the team’s ownership is truly committed to doing what it takes to win. Not based off what recent history has taught us. If anything, we can point to this Hernandez extension as a neccessary first step towards the Mariners someday escaping fourth place.

But if it’s ever to amount to more than the previous Hernandez extension, Lincoln and the owners he represents have to make long-term commitments to players beyond their ace. They will have to not only pursue free agents and trade targets, but actually finish the job and bring some of them here beyond one-year deals. They will have to start hitting big on some of these young players they’ve staked their future on.

Right now, we’re entering the fifth year since cost-cutting began. And we’re staring at what will likely be another fourth-place finish. That means, if Lincoln expects ownership to be feted for doing what it takes to win, a whole lot more will have to happen before the team’s plan heads into Year No. 6.







Comments | More in payroll | Topics: contract, felix hernandez, howard lincoln


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