Does Felix Hernandez's Perfect Game Force Mariners Not to Trade Him This Winter?
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"Seriously, how much longer can we avoid trading this guy?"
Since awesome things are par for the course for King Felix, Mariners bosses obviously find themselves asking this question on a pretty regular basis.
Hernandez didn't make it any easier for the Mariners brass to relax on Wednesday. He threw the 23rd perfect game in Major League Baseball history against the Tampa Bay Rays, striking out 12 in the process.
He was already one of the game's nastiest pitchers before spinning a perfecto on Wednesday. Now the question is whether he's the nastiest pitcher in baseball (he has my vote).
For now, it's all good. The trade deadline is over, so King Felix won't be going anywhere in the final weeks of the 2012 season. When the season is over, his contract will still have two years remaining on it. He'll cost the Mariners close to $40 million over these two years, but that seems like a bargain.
So if Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik doesn't want to trade King Felix, he doesn't have to. Nobody's twisting his arm.
But we'd all be kidding ourselves if we ignored the fact that seemingly every writer, expert and fan outside of the Seattle area is pining for Zduriencik to trade King Felix in the near future, preferably as soon as this winter.
We'd also be kidding ourselves if we didn't acknowledge that those who want Hernandez to be traded have more than one leg to stand on.
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Yes, the Mariners will be able to make a killing if they decide to trade Hernandez. They'll be able to get blue-chip prospects, quality major leaguers, first-borns, the keys to the castle, etc. Whatever they want, really.
And yes, trading Hernandez would thus pay off in the long run. The Mariners have somewhat of a solid foundation in place, but it looks like they're still a couple years away from being legit contenders. Trading Hernandez for a king's ransom of young players will get them to contention a lot sooner, and they'd conceivably be able to contend for a long time once they get there.
And no, the Mariners will not be able to outbid MLB's super-rich teams for Hernandez's services once he becomes a free agent after the 2014 season. He'll still be one of baseball's best pitchers, and he'll still be only 28 freakin' years old.
Hernandez has been insisting for a while now that he absolutely loves Seattle and that he's not really interested in going anywhere. It was just last month that he told The Seattle Times that he wants to stick around and try to help the Mariners win the World Series.
"I believe in the organization," he said. "I believe we're going in the right direction. We're better. We're going to be better."
Asked about the possibility of re-signing with Seattle down the road, all Hernandez said was, "It's my decision."
A vague answer, to be sure, one that can be interpreted to mean that he won't be swayed by a richer offer in the winter of 2014. It can, however, also be interpreted to mean he'll definitely consider leaving Seattle if he gets an offer with a few extra zeros.
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This is where it's worth noting that MLB's super-rich teams are going to be able to fit Hernandez into their budgets if they so choose to pursue him.
The Los Angeles Dodgers will have Hanley Ramirez coming off their books after 2014. By then, the New York Yankees will be rid of super-expensive players like Derek Jeter and Rafael Soriano. The Boston Red Sox will be rid of John Lackey and Josh Beckett (assuming neither is jettisoned beforehand).
One assumes Zduriencik isn't blind to the reality of the situation, which is why there's an expectation not just among experts and fans that he'll have to give in and trade Hernandez, but among other baseball executives as well.
Here's what one AL executive told John Harper of the New York Daily News:
I don’t care what Jack is saying right now. I think he’ll listen to offers next winter. I know the kid says he wants to be in Seattle, but do you really think he’ll re-sign there if they’re not a contender?
And, really, the decision for Jack will only be a year away after this season. Because he can’t afford to let Felix go into 2014 without an extension, or he’d either have to trade him at the deadline for less than his value or risk losing him for nothing.
Given the two remaining years on King Felix's contract, his value is going to be higher this winter than it will be at any point after the 2013 season gets underway. Plus, Hernandez could be a two-time AL Cy Young winner by the time the winter rolls around, elevating his value even higher.
Zduriencik will be able to make a killing on Hernandez no matter when/if he decides to trade him, but he won't be able to make a bigger killing than the one he could make this winter if he decides to trade King Felix.
Obviously, trading Hernandez won't be a simple matter of pushing a button. There are a couple of major hold-ups surrounding the idea.
There's the sentimental problem, for one, which also happens to be a business problem. King Felix is the organization's favorite son, and with Ichiro out of town he's without a doubt the biggest star attraction the Mariners have to offer a fan base that doesn't have much incentive to fill Safeco Field on days he's not pitching.
If he were to be taken out of the equation, the Mariners would have to hope that more and more wins would follow swiftly. It's hard enough for them to ask their fans to pay to watch a losing team. A losing team without Hernandez is a thought that none of the Mariners suits want to consider.
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It would be one thing if Hernandez were having a subpar season, but he's having a terrific season and his perfect game will still loom large months from now when Zduriencik is in his office wheeling and dealing. The world outside the state of Washington can think whatever it wants, but the pressure from within Washington for the Mariners to keep Hernandez will never be higher than it is right now.
It's true that it's not a good idea to let fans run a team, but trading Hernandez this offseason would have an alienating effect unlike anything we've ever seen. That's a not-insignificant factor in all this.
The other thing holding up a potential offseason trade is the notion that the Mariners may not be as far away from contention as people think they are.
The Mariners are not as hopeless as their 55-64 record indicates. People love to complain about their offense, but the Mariners actually rank fourth in baseball in runs scored on the road. That's a sign that there's more offense to be had out of their current lineup if the fences at Safeco Field are brought in a few feet.
It's either that, or the Mariners can build a team around pitching and defense. They already have the defense, as the Mariners lead all of baseball in both team UZR and DRS, according to FanGraphs. We also know they have a perennial Cy Young contender in Hernandez, and there's plenty more pitching on the way.
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Seattle's farm system is loaded with quality pitching. Right-hander Taijuan Walker and left-hander Danny Hultzen both cracked the top five of Baseball America's midseason top 50 prospects list. Also making the cut were LHP James Paxton and SS Nick Franklin.
The Mariners already have some good young players at the major league level. Dustin Ackley was a top prospect not too longer ago, and Jesus Montero entered the season as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Kyle Seager is only 24, and he looks like a quality player.
The Mariners were effectively handed over to the youngsters when Ichiro was traded on July 23, and they've played pretty well since then, at one point winning eight out of nine.
So it's by no means crazy to think that the Mariners will be able to make a run at a record of .500 or better in 2013, which would put them in line for better things in the final year of Hernandez's contract in 2014.
If the Mariners are contenders by then, King Felix will be even more willing to re-up with the team. All they'll have to do is come up with the dough, and he may very well agree to a hometown discount if the Mariners are a good team with a bright future.
Choosing not to trade Hernandez this winter will require Zduriencik to take a leap of faith. Make no mistake about that.
Don't be so surprised if he chooses to take that leap.
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