Mariners had to sign Felix ... and they did
February, 7, 2013
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
So Felix Hernandez really does love Seattle.
For a franchise that traded away Randy Johnson, that experienced Ken Griffey Jr. asking out of town, that saw Alex Rodriguez depart for a better park to pad his home run totals, it's about freakin' time a superstar wanted to stay.
The reports say the Mariners gave Hernandez a seven-year, $175 million contract, apparently ripping up the remaining two years of his existing deal (which would have paid him $40 million). This contract averages out to $25 million per year, making him the highest-paid pitcher both in terms of total value of the control and average annual salary (topping CC Sabathia's $161 million and Zack Greinke's $24.5 million average). Considering Hernandez is younger than Sabathia and has a better track record than Greinke, the contract seems like a fair-market deal for both sides.
That doesn't mean the contract isn't without risk for the Mariners. While Hernandez has never had any injury concerns, he's also piled up a lot of innings early in his career, just completing his fourth straight 230-inning season in his age-26 campaign. Still, if you're going to bet on any pitcher staying healthy for seven years, Hernandez is as good a bet as anyone. He has thrown the most innings over the past four years -- one-third more than Justin Verlander, although at least Felix hasn't had any of those high-stress playoff innings added on. He's thrown 998 fewer regular-season pitches than Verlander, however, and his 107.4 pitches per start over those four years doesn't seem extreme; it is the second-highest average behind Verlander, but 14 others have averaged at least 104 pitches per start.
Some may also point out that Hernandez didn't pitch as well as after his perfect game, with his ERA rising to 4.67 over his last eight starts. But as Mark Simon pointed out to me, Hernandez's peripheral stats were similar -- home run rate, same strikeout/walk ratio and same line-drive rate. The only difference was his average on balls in play increased from .281 to .390. He's fine.
This contract takes Hernandez from his age-27 through his age-33 seasons, so that makes it similar to the original deal Sabathia signed with the Yankees at age 28. So far that deal has worked out for the Yankees, as Sabathia has pitched at least 200 innings in his first four seasons with the team and averaged 5.2 wins above replacement per season according to Baseball-Reference.com. That's right what Felix has averaged during the past four years: 5.1 WAR.
That's just one comparison, of course; Sabathia's present doesn't predict Felix Hernandez's future. On a strict dollar-per-win exercise, where teams have paid about $6 million per win on the free-agent market, Hernandez would have to compile about 30 WAR to "earn" the value of the contract, or about 4.3 WAR per season. (By the way, with 31.5 career WAR so far, that would put him soundly in Hall of Fame territory.) If contracts continue to go up, the value to justify the contract goes down, but the Mariners have basically made the bet that Hernandez will continue to pitch about as well as he has for seven more years.
The deal does eat up a large portion of the Mariners' payroll -- as much as third this year -- but Seattle is in a good position to absorb this kind of contract. The only players besides Felix signed beyond 2013 are Hisashi Iwakuma ($7.5 million in 2014) and prospect Danny Hultzen ($1.7 million in 2014 and '15).
Now comes the tough part: getting him some help.
Because as much as Felix loves Seattle, I'm sure he'd love to pitch in a playoff game before 2019.