Mariners' Handling of Felix Hernandez Will Make or Break the Franchise

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Mariners' Handling of Felix Hernandez Will Make or Break the Franchise

It's all about Felix Hernandez in Seattle. The Mariners revolve around him.

For now, anyway, and for good or ill. Of all the situations that must be handled with care in Major League Baseball, Hernandez's future with the Mariners is right at the top of the list.

With only two years left on King Felix's deal, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has reported that the Mariners are looking to make him a "Mariner for life." Hernandez himself has often expressed his fondness for Seattle, so it's certainly possible that he'll choose not to wait to depart for greener pastures when he hits free agency in 2015.

However, this report from Ken Davidoff of the New York Post casts doubt on the idea:

I'm assuming that talks didn't get far because Hernandez and his people aren't fools. The Mariners are no doubt willing to pay him handsomely to keep him in a Seattle uniform for the rest of his career, but now would be a poor time for Hernandez to commit.

Perched high upon his throne, King Felix can see that Zack Greinke is on the lookout for the richest contract ever given to a right-handed pitcher. In fact, Jon Heyman has said that Greinke could become the richest pitcher of any kind in major league history.

The smart thing for Hernandez to do is wait for Greinke, who is three years older and less accomplished, to set the market for elite right-handers and then give the Mariners a call and ask if they see all those zeroes on Greinke's new deal.

Or Hernandez could wait even longer. He's not the only ace pitcher who could sign an extension soon, as Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are also due to hit free agency in 2015. More than likely, both of them will top Greinke's new deal.

If Hernandez really wants to maximize his career earnings—and why wouldn't he?—he'll sign a contract in a market set by Kershaw and/or Verlander rather than a market set by Greinke.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Hernandez has the fourth-highest fWAR among pitchers since 2009.

No wonder he's in no hurry to sign now. Hernandez could surely make a boatload of money if he were to re-up with the Mariners now, but he could make several boatloads of money if he signs in the future.

All he has to do between now and this theoretical "then" is do his thing out on the mound. And to that end, he should be fine.

The dilemma the Mariners have to deal with in the meantime is that they have work to do to shape themselves into a contender, as they stand a much better chance of keeping King Felix in his castle if he knows he can succeed in Seattle just as well, or better, as he can elsewhere.

For the Mariners to achieve their goal, money is going to have to be spent. It's either that or wait on the team's top prospects to develop into impact major leaguers, and that train may not arrive before the end of the 2014 season.

The Mariners seem to have come to the same conclusion. General manager Jack Zduriencik has kicked the tires on several of this winter's top free agents, including Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher.

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com has said that the Mariners are negotiating with Hamilton. Bourn could be a fallback option if the club can't sign Hamilton, as Jon Heyman has said they rather like him. He's also listed the Mariners as one of the top options for Swisher.

Any one of the three is likely to cost the Mariners around $15 million per year, with Hamilton more likely to cost them around $25 million per year. This is not a case of a long-suffering franchise aiming for low-risk, high-reward investments. This is a case of a long-suffering franchise ready to go for it.

The Mariners have good excuses to go all-in (or all-out) this winter. The big-market clubs don't seem to be in on their primary targets. They're due to get roughly $50 million per year from the league's new TV deals starting in 2014. They can opt out of their own TV deal after 2015 and sign a more lucrative agreement.

Nonetheless, there are two big questions begging to be asked.

One: Is one marquee bat really all the Mariners need to contend in the immediate future?

Two: Despite the money that's due to come their way, will they still be able to make Hernandez a competitive offer after they sign said marquee bat?

The best answer that can be given for the first question is maybe. The Mariners should see an uptick in their offensive production with the fences at Safeco Field coming in, and adding a top hitter would only help. But they have a long way to go from being downright bad to being good enough on offense, and they happen to play in one of the deepest divisions in baseball.

The answer to the second question is also a maybe. You have to think that Hernandez's next deal is going to be worth at least $30 million per year. Even with all the money that's going to be floating around, the Mariners may not be able to afford a deal like that if they're committing $15-$25 million to a shiny new hitter starting in 2013.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Walker is No. 4 on MLB.com's list of top prospects.

There's a chance the Mariners will be able to live with letting Hernandez go eventually. Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen could arrive and quickly establish themselves as stud starters, and James Paxton looks pretty good too. Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino could arrive and further bolster the club's offense, which already features high-ceiling youngsters in Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley.

If these guys all pan out and the club's new hitter turns out to be a good investment, bidding King Felix adieu won't hurt so bad if it becomes apparent the Mariners have no choice. If these guys all pan out and the Mariners are able to ink Hernandez for the long haul, all will have worked out in the club's favor.

Of course, there would still be risk even in that scenario. Age and/or injuries could turn King Felix into a liability with a massive contract, in which case the Mariners would be forced to work around him sort of like the Minnesota Twins and Joe Mauer. In the much longer run, King Felix's deal would prove impossible to move and it could keep the Mariners from retaining their homegrown stars.

Disaster could also ensue in the much shorter term. What if the Mariners are unable to sign an impact hitter this winter? What if they are, only to get Adrian Beltre'd or Chone Figgins'd all over again? On top of that, what if several or all of their top youngsters fail to develop into capable major leaguers between now and the end of Hernandez's current deal?

If these things come to pass, Hernandez's considerable abilities will continue to be wasted on a mediocre team. The decision before him will be to stay put or bite his tongue until it's time to leave.

The decision before the Mariners, meanwhile, will be whether they want to commit a good chunk of their payroll space to Hernandez and then continuing to trust their (as yet unproven) ability to build a contender around him.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Jack Zduriencik won't be treated to many free dinners in Seattle if he trades King Felix.

It's either that, or do what seemingly every team in the big leagues wants them to do and trade their king.

There's no chance of this happening now. The Mariners look and sound optimistic, and that's perfectly fine given the circumstances. But if they are going to trade Hernandez, they had better do it sooner rather than later.

Let's say the 2013 season develops like a typical Mariners season. There may be flashes here and there, particularly on days when Hernandez is pitching, but the club will soon find itself closer to last place in the AL West than to first place.

Come the trade deadline, the Mariners will have to decide whether to trade Hernandez for a large basket of talented prospects as a season-and-a-half rental, or hold on to him and continue to hold out hope.

Holding on to him would come with great risk. King Felix's trade value will only get lower and lower as he gets closer to the end of his contract, while the price to sign him could skyrocket if Kershaw and/or Verlander jump the gun and sign extensions.

The worst-case scenario involves the Mariners foolishly holding on to Hernandez through the end of the 2014 season only to watch him walk. All they'll get then is a compensatory draft pick, which will look all the more measly when measured against the prospects the Mariners could have received in a trade.

Gut feeling question: Will Hernandez still be a Mariner after 2014?

Submit Vote vote to see results

The Mariners must not let this scenario come to fruition. If all their chips are down and they have interested parties lusting after Hernandez, they should trade him. If their chips are up and the market has spoken on Hernandez's value, they should go ahead and ink him. If Hernandez proves unwilling to sign while the Mariners have a couple of replacement aces standing at the ready in Walker and Hultzen, they should get what they can for him and move on.

The club's preference, obviously, is to keep Hernandez for as long as possible, and to lock him up sooner rather than later.

But that's only going to happen if Hernandez plays nice. Assuming he doesn't, the Mariners will soon be faced with an array of choices that will include clear-cut wrong ones but no clear-cut right ones.

Godspeed, Mr. Zduriencik. In your franchise pitcher, you hold the fate of your franchise.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts


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