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Wednesday, February 13, 2013
A stay-at-home King Felix Hernandez

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- Well, I guess the East Coast pundits will have to revise their urgent, emphatic speculations a wee bit. If the Mariners simply must trade Felix Hernandez to the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies/Nationals at least two years before he reaches free agency, they now have the luxury of waiting until the trade deadline in 2017.

In the meantime, the pundits will just have to accept the fact that King Felix is going to remain in his Seattle castle for the foreseeable future. After officially signing an historic seven-year, $175 million contract that ties him to the Mariners through 2019, an emotional Hernandez repeated again and again Wednesday afternoon what he has been saying all along (and what East Coasters apparently didn't, or wouldn't, hear).

Felix Hernandez
Smiles, and tears (of joy), were the order of the day in Seattle for Felix Hernandez.

"To all the people in Seattle that trust me and believe in me -- I'm not going to disappoint ANYBODY. I will do my best. The Seattle Mariners will be in the top. Believe me," Hernandez said, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion. "I'm not saying this because I'm [signing this contract]. I don't care about this. I care about the people in Seattle. I care because they always supported me. I'm doing this because I love this city and I want to stay here. I don't want to go anywhere else. I love this place. This has been my life. This has been my family.

"Thank you. Thank you so much. I'm going to go to spring training tomorrow and I'm going to do my best."

With those words, Felix narrowed the gap on Edgar Martinez for the title of the most popular Mariner of all time. Seattle has lost far too much in recent years. Randy Johnson left. Ken Griffey Jr. left (and returned old). Alex Rodriguez left. Lou Piniella left. Ichiro left. Boeing moved its headquarters. The Sonics left. But King Felix is staying. The only thing that might make the city feel better right now is if Microsoft's stock actually rose.

Imagine. A player who simply wants to stay with his team. True, it's at a hefty price, but still. Hernandez was so choked with emotion at the contract signing that he had to pause several times to collect his thoughts. He tried to hold back tears but failed. Academy Award winners don't get this worked up. He thanked so many people and expressed such heartfelt happiness that a couple reporters admitted even they got a little verklempt as well.

Then again, maybe you would weep a bit like Felix, too, if someone just guaranteed you $175 million.

Signing any player to such a large contract is a huge risk, but particularly so for a pitcher. You can point to many, many more long-term deals that went horribly wrong (where do I even start?) than those that worked out (such as Randy Johnson's five-year deal with Arizona). But Hernandez is young -- he doesn't turn 27 until early April -- and has been a workhorse, pitching at least 230 innings with 200-plus strikeouts in each of the past four seasons.

His record suffered after his August perfect game last year -- he went 2-4 with a 4.67 ERA after it. But as ESPN researchers point out, much of that may have been due to bad luck. His strikeout and line drive rate remained the same, but his average on batted balls put in play rose from .281 to .390.

There was speculation that a physical last week discovered an issue with his elbow, but Hernandez denied it, saying his arm is fine. General manager Jack Zduriencik said that all the Mariners doctors and trainers signed off on Hernandez's health as well. Agent Scotty Pucino said the delay in finalizing the contract after media reports last week was due to reporters jumping the gun a bit. Certain items -- such as the first full no-trade clause the team has ever given -- still needed to be worked out.

Still, as Zduriencik acknowledged, everyone can get hurt. And almost everyone does. But whether the deal proves shrewd or disastrous in the long run, the Mariners had little choice but to extend the contract.

Felix Hernandez
His 2012 season went a bit downhill after his perfecto in August, but that didn't deter the Mariners.

The Mariners are coming off three consecutive last-place seasons. They haven't been to the postseason since winning a record 116 games in 2001. Attendance has declined every year but one in the past decade, and the 2012 attendance was the lowest for a full season since 1992. CEO Howard Lincoln further -- and needlessly -- alienated the fan base by openly opposing the construction of a new basketball arena close to the Mariners' stadium.

Seattle also traded away Ichiro last year, leaving Felix as the team's only star. After letting so many team icons go, they needed to keep a star for once to give their fans something worth the ever-increasing ticket prices.

Now that the Mariners have locked up Felix, they must surround him with hitters who can score enough runs so that he won't wind up leading the league in 2-1 losses for the next seven years. The farm system has to come through after an awful two-decade drought; Seattle hasn't drafted a position player who made the All-Star team in a Mariners uniform since A-Rod. Dustin Ackley needs to rebound. Kyle Seager must continue to improve. Catcher Mike Zunino must turn out to be the real thing. Their highly touted pitching prospects must justify the hype.

Gaining so many games against the 100-loss, new-AL-West-Division Astros (and the Cubs) this season should get Seattle within .500. A lot of other things have to go right, though, for the Mariners to make good on Hernandez's pledge of returning to the playoffs and being a top team. But having the King in his court for the next seven seasons at least gives them time and something to build around.

Of course, if they don't improve significantly, expect the East Coast pundits to start calling for a trade sometime around 2016.