Despite Elbow Fears, Felix Hernandez Has Already Set the Market for Young Aces

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Despite Elbow Fears, Felix Hernandez Has Already Set the Market for Young Aces
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The contract: seven years and $175 million—or $25 million per year, if you're into the whole average annual value thing. The recipient: a young ace pitcher.

There's a young ace out there who will get such a contract in the near future, even if it's not Seattle Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez.

King Felix is currently hoping to put his signature on a brand spanking new contract. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported last week that Hernandez and the Mariners had agreed to tack on five years and $135.5 million to the $39.5 million he's already owed over the next two seasons and that the deal would be finalized before spring training.

But wait just a minute. ESPN's Buster Olney reported on Sunday that concerns have arisen about the health of Hernandez's pitching elbow, putting the finalization of his extension on hold. Nightengale says the Mariners are looking to include protective language in the deal:

But as Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times pointed out, talks would have ceased by now if the concerns about Hernandez's elbow were serious. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com has heard that an announcement could come in the "next day or two," which indicates pretty strongly that the Mariners are busy revising King Felix's extension rather than blowing it up.

Even if the Mariners do blow up their 26-year-old ace's extension, the damage has already been done in regard to what now counts as fair market value for a young ace pitcher. The bar has been raised, and the raise itself is irreversible. 

A select number of things count when determining contracts for ace pitchers: age, durability, skill, health and, to a degree, handedness. The Mariners negotiated Hernandez's extension knowing for a fact that he had age, durability and skill working for him. And because he did indeed have these things working for him, they were right to assume he was healthy as well.

USA TODAY Sports
Zack Greinke picked a perfect year to become a free agent.

The Mariners also negotiated with Hernandez knowing that they were going to have to pay a minimum amount based on King Felix's right-handedness. Zack Greinke becoming the richest right-handed pitcher in history when he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December, and that was an honor the Mariners absolutely had to bestow onto Hernandez to get him to listen.

Greinke got six years and $147 million in his new deal, or $24.5 million per year. That was the price Hernandez's people were looking to beat, and it was easy for them to make a convincing argument.

For starters, Hernandez is three years younger than Greinke. Just as important, he's been a better pitcher over the last four years. Here's a chart that I conjured a few weeks ago:

Stat Greinke Since '09 Hernandez Since '09
Innings 833.1 954.0
ERA 3.37 2.81
ERA+ 123 139
WHIP 1.18 1.14
Strikeouts 824 894
bWAR 18.0 20.4
fWAR 23.5

24.2

This is to say nothing of the fact that Hernandez is much more of a franchise face than Greinke. While Greinke  bounced around from the Kansas City Royals to the Milwaukee Brewers to the Los Angeles Angels and now to the Dodgers, Hernandez established himself as the face and the star of the Mariners when he won the American League Cy Young award in 2010.

If Greinke is worth $24.5 million per year, surely Hernandez is worth at least $25 million per year. Case closed. New market value set.

But in addition to making him the highest-paid right-hander ever, Hernandez's seven-year deal would also make him the most expensive pitcher of any kind in history. His $175 million payday would top the $161 million payday CC Sabathia got from the Yankees in 2008.

Hernandez's extension would top Sabathia's partially because of the years, but also because of the average annual salary of $25 million that he's set to earn. That's another new high for an ace pitcher, and it's a figure that comes off as being inevitable.

All it takes is one look back at the big contracts given to ace pitchers under the age of 30 ever since Barry Zito signed his record-setting deal in 2006.

Year Player Age Team Years Dollars AAV
2006 Barry Zito 28 Giants 7 $126M $18M
2008 Johan Santana 28 Mets 6 $137.5M $22.9M
2008 CC Sabathia 28 Yankees 7 $161M $23M
2012 Cole Hamels 28 Phillies 6 $144M $24M
2012 Zack Greinke 29 Dodgers 6 $147 $24.5M

At this rate, it was a matter of when a young ace was going to get a contract worth $25 million per year. Not if. If it wasn't going to be Hernandez, it was going to be someone else.

Health may be the death of Hernandez's seven-year, $175 million contract, but there's no undoing the fact that the Mariners deemed a pitcher of Hernandez's age, durability and skill to be worth $25 million per year. Other ace pitchers out there can now point to that dollar amount and to why they deserve it based on their own age, durability and skill level. In light of King Felix's situation, health will count for something as well.

Two names come immediately to mind: Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

Verlander will surely use Hernandez's agreed-to extension as a starting point for his next contract. He's due to turn 30 next week, so he doesn't have Hernandez beat as far as age goes. He has health working for him, however, as Verlander has been a picture of health ever since he first broke into the league. He also has Hernandez beat in regard to durability and skill.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Justin Verlander's next contract is going to be gigantic.

Per FanGraphs, Verlander leads all pitchers in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts and WAR since the start of 2011. He ranks second in ERA, but first among all right-handers. He can claim to be baseball's best pitcher, as well as baseball's best right-hander. Therefore, he can claim a right to a deal worth at least a better average annual value than Hernandez's, and ideally more total dollars as well.

Kershaw should be able to do even better. He had a problem with his right hip late last year, but it wasn't bad enough for the Dodgers to shut him down. He's also younger than both Verlander and Hernandez at 24 years of age (25 in March), and he's right there with them in terms of durability and skill.

Kershaw only ranks fifth among pitchers in wins over the last two seasons, but he ranks first among lefties in innings pitched and strikeouts, and his 2.40 ERA tops Verlander's 2.52 ERA. He deserves at least $25 million per year based on his track record, and certainly more years and, thus, more total dollars based on his youth.

When it comes to ace pitchers looking for big-time contracts, Hernandez, Verlander and Kershaw are undeniably the big three out there right now. One of them is going to sign first—it will very likely be Hernandez—and then the other two will use the first signee's contract as a template for their own.

And then things will go from there. There's a shred of a chance that the market value for ace pitchers will go down, but recent history tells us it should keep climbing.

It took six years for Barry Zito to raise the bar for ace pitchers after Mike Hampton became baseball's first $120 million pitcher in 2000. But the bar has been raised pretty consistently ever since then. That's partially thanks to the game's ever-increasing revenues, but it's also thanks to thanks to the fact that pitching is king in today's game.

Whether or not it's eventually completed, Hernandez's contract is king as far as fellow ace pitchers are concerned. Now, it's just a matter of whose contract is going to supplant it, whose contract is going to supplant that one, whose contract is going to supplant that one and so on into oblivion.

Records are made to be broken, as they say. That's as true at the negotiating table as it is on the field.

 

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

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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