Superstar starting pitcher Felix Hernandez may have just made his team, the Seattle Mariners, very happy by agreeing to a huge extension, but his deal may have very negative implications for the Boston Red Sox.
The 26-year-old Hernandez just landed the richest contract in baseball history for a pitcher, agreeing to a five-year extension worth $135.5 million that will keep him in Seattle through the 2019 season. Added on to his current contract, Hernandez's total deal amounts to seven years and $175 million.
During his eight-year major league career, Hernandez has developed into one of the best pitchers in baseball. He has a career record of 98-76 with a 3.22 ERA and 1,487 strikeouts in 1,620.1 innings. He also won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award and has finished in the top four on two other occasions.
Although Hernandez has never thrown a pitch for the Red Sox, his new deal could come as a huge blow to the team. With him coming off the market, the Red Sox, who currently lack a bona fide ace on their major league roster or a clear-cut candidate coming up through their system, now have their already meager options dwindle all the more.
As recently as last year, speculation started that Boston could possibly make a play for Hernandez through a trade or free agency following the 2014 season.
The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo wrote that the pitcher “would be King in Boston,” if the Red Sox ever decided to pursue him.
Now that Hernandez is locked up through the prime of his career, the Red Sox will have to see if they can conjure up another alternative.
None of the current starters in Boston’s rotation could be considered an ace. John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront all have career ERAs of at least 3.92. Meanwhile, FanGraphs’ Michael Barr wrote how and why Jon Lester, once seen as Boston’s ace, has seen his stuff and results decline—culminating with a 9-14 record and 3.82 ERA last year.
Boston has a number of intriguing pitching prospects like Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, but none is likely to be an ace, according to ESPN.com’s Keith Law, who recently appeared on WEEI’s Red Sox Hot Stove Radio Show:
I don’t see a lot of high-upside pitching. I think they have more back-end pitching or quality relief prospects, but not the potential number one and two starters that other organizations have. They’re not all going to turn into aces, but at least the possibility exists for that to happen.
The Red Sox have placed a heavy emphasis on having a true ace in recent years, with Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett all having led their rotation during the past two decades.
Buster Olney wrote about the conundrum facing teams like Boston in an Insider article for ESPN.com:
As one general manager explained last year, big-market teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Dodgers don't have easy access to elite pitchers. They usually contend for the postseason, which means they aren't picking at or near the top of the draft. They either have to trade a huge package of prospects for elite pitchers…or they have to fork over a lot of money in free agency, as the Yankees did with CC Sabathia. (Or they find a diamond via international scouting, as the Mariners did with Hernandez when they signed him at age 16.)
If Boston wants to find its ace, it will likely have to be someone currently outside the organization. But with Hernandez now off the market, who is left?
There are three primary options, but they all look like long shots for Boston.
Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander has two years left on his current contract. However, the former Cy Young and MVP winner isn’t likely going anywhere, as team general manager Dave Dombrowski told CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman that he’d like to have Verlander in a Detroit uniform for life.
Left-hander Clayton Kershaw is still just 24, but he has won 61 career games while claiming a Cy Young and a second-place finish during the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He will also not be eligible for free agency until 2015, but with the vast sums of money the Dodgers have to spend, it’s hard to imagine him going elsewhere.
The third candidate is left-hander David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays. He has a 61-31 record and a 3.16 ERA during his first five seasons and won the 2012 AL Cy Young.
Price won’t be eligible for free agency until 2016, but his rapidly increasing arbitration numbers may necessitate his trade from the budget-conscious Rays, which Olney believes will happen by the start of the 2014 season.
Any play for Price would almost certainly cost a king’s ransom in prospects. Boston’s commitment to rebuild a strong farm system and be prudent about oversized deals would be in direct conflict with such a trade.
No obvious answers appear to be in the offing, so the Red Sox will have to hope for an opportunity in the near future. Until then, the implications of Hernandez’s recent windfall will hang over them like a dark cloud.