Felix Hernandez's New Contract Is Huge, but Are Monster Deals Worth It?

Alex GruberFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2013

Felix Hernandez's New Contract Is Huge, but Are Monster Deals Worth It?

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    Despite their standing as one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball over the last few years, the Seattle Mariners are about to keep superstar pitcher Felix Hernandez around a little longer.

    Last week the two parties agreed to a five-year extension that will see Hernandez paid, on average, over $27 million per year over the span of that deal. Add that to his current contract, with two years left, and he is set to make $175 million over seven seasons.

    It is certainly not surprising to see a team wanting to tie up a star player like Seattle is doing, and in fact, it's nice to see this and not a free-agent crazy house like what would have happened in two years had this deal not come up.

    There is, unfortunately, one little snag holding things up—Hernandez's health. The Seattle Times reported that the negotiations hit a standstill after a physical revealed an "elbow issue." An MRI showed it to be just "wear and tear" and not something major, and the deal could be finalized soon.

    However, an issue like wear in an elbow is certainly worrying, especially on a pitcher who is about to make well over $20 million a year over the next seven years. You don't want to get yourself caught in a deal you can't turn around on.

    So is this big deal worth the risk? Let's take a closer look.

Big Deals: The Pros and Cons

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    Over the years, teams have continued to dish out bigger and bigger contracts to star players. These tactics have their upsides as well as their downsides.

    The biggest upside, of course, is that they lock down the player in question for a given time span. Having a player who deserves big-time money in your squad for a long time is always going to help you, both on the field and off.

    On the field, the player can bring consistent quality to your team every day (or every fifth day for starting pitchers). Off it, having recognizable names drives fan interest, boosting attendance and merchandise sales.

    But locking up a player long-term at a high salary could have its downsides. You've committed a lot of money to a player, and if he fails to deliver, what do you have left to do?

    Mike Hampton's name comes to mind here. The power-hitting pitcher delivered an astounding season with the Houston Astros in 1999, with a 22-4 record and a 2.90 ERA landing him second in Cy Young Award voting.

    After being traded before the last year of his deal that offseason, he signed an eight-year deal with the Colorado Rockies prior to the 2001 season worth over $120 million. But two miserable seasons saw him dealt to Atlanta, where injuries derailed his career.

    This contract yielded one semi-effective season (2003, his first with Atlanta), multiple surgeries, and a load of wasted money. Granted, not every contract will end up like this, but it's a possibility. Hernandez's "wear and tear" is not a promising sign in this regard.

The Good Deals

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    Sometimes, giving a player a huge contract ends up working perfectly. The player fits in the team well, performs up to or beyond expectations and the fans enjoy watching the player represent their team day in and day out.

    Albert Pujols is a prime example of this. In 2004, he was rewarded for a fantastic first few years with the St. Louis Cardinals, signing a seven-year deal worth $100 million. All he did after that was win three MVP awards (plus two second-place finishes), become the best player in the game and the small matter of winning two World Series.

    He moved to the Los Angeles Angels in December 2011, leaving behind an indelible legacy in St. Louis. His 11 years of service yielded nearly 450 homers, and combined with the two World Series titles, this makes for an almost incomparable start to a career.

    And with an average salary of around $14 million, he was a relative bargain compared to today's exorbitant contracts, and even his current 10-year, $254 million deal in Los Angeles.

    In terms of pitchers, Hernandez's deal will surely be compared with the one handed to New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia before the 2009 season. Worth $161 million over seven years, Sabathia remains the game's highest paid hurler, pending the finalization of Hernandez's extension.

    In four seasons wearing the famed pinstripes, Sabathia has not disappointed one bit. Establishing himself as the ace of the Yankees' staff, the lefty has been the one consistent threat in an often-changing rotation.

    Not only does he have some of the best stuff in the league, but he's also a workhorse who eclipsed the 230 innings pitch mark in 5 straight seasons before 2012 saw a few missed starts. And the 2009 postseason saw him win his only title after a series of strong starts.

    Only time will tell if Felix Hernandez can deliver similar results to Sabathia.

The Not-so-Good Deals

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    Unlike the contracts mentioned on the previous slide, some deals don't quite pan out as well. Maybe injuries affect things, or perhaps just a burden of expectation becomes too great for certain players.

    In the case of Barry Zito, it is likely more of the former, but certainly some of the latter as well. The lefty even admitted as much after struggling in 2007, the first year of his seven-year, $126 million deal. He told the San Francisco Chronicle:

    "You want to be everything for everyone. You want to show everyone you're worth every dollar. I figured out, be myself. That's what they're paying me for, to be who I am."

    "Sometimes we have to go through crap to prove to ourselves we can handle it. I think the reality is, I never pitched with a number on my forehead such as the contract. All these things were new to me."

    Zito did have a great 2012, posting a 15-8 record and pitching brilliantly in the opening game of the World Series. But aside from that, he has struggled to reach the level that saw him regarded as one of the game's best arms during his stint across the bay with the Oakland A's.

    In terms of a hitter that fits this bill, Vernon Wells springs to mind. After an excellent 2006 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, Wells was handed a deal equal in length and total worth to Zito's, but structured completely differently.

    Backloaded to pay Wells over $20 million annually starting in 2011, the contract was panned as terrible across the sports media world. Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated named it the worst in the MLB in 2009, considering the structure and the fact that Wells underperformed greatly in the three years since signing the deal.

    Luckily, the Jays were able to deal Wells before 2011, sending him to the Angels after a solid bounce-back 2010. But Wells has since bounced back into mediocrity, and will be paid $21 million dollars to sit on the bench at age 34.

The Bad Deals

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    You sometimes get the deals like Pujols that work out amazingly for your team. Other times, you end up with a guy like Zito who doesn't quite meet the expectations, but isn't horrible. The rest of the time, we have the cases like Mike Hampton, where a deal just blows up in your face.

    Carl Crawford's deal with the Boston Red Sox is an example of one such deal. After a stellar career with the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, the speedy left fielder signed a seven-year deal with the Sox worth over $20 million a year, on average, prior to the 2011 season.

    In his two seasons with Boston, he played just 161 games, largely due to injuries. The 2011 season saw him miss 32 games, steal just 18 bases (a far cry from the five 50-plus steal seasons he put up in Tampa), and hit a career-worst .255.

    He also struggled defensively in left field, with three errors compared to just one assist. Perhaps that came down to not adjusting well to the Green Monster at Fenway Park. Now he gets to adjust to the spacious confines at Dodger Stadium after the Red Sox dumped his massive contract to Los Angeles last August.

    Speaking of salary dumps, that's certainly something the (Florida) Miami Marlins have been used to doing. Indeed, they were the subject of perhaps the biggest such money turnaround in recent memory this past offseason.

    Their first season in Miami saw them bring in expensive new signings Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes. After a season of relative under-performance by all three, the trio was shipped right out of town, with Bell landing in Arizona while Buehrle and Reyes joined three others in moving to Toronto.

    Indeed, the Marlins will pay a fair amount of each player's contracts in 2013, possibly more than what they'll pay a lot of the players that will actually play for them this season. Needless to say, Felix Hernandez will be glad to avoid this situation.

So Where Does Felix Hernandez Fit In?

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    Obviously, it is impossible to categorize Hernandez's deal right now since he hasn't actually signed it. But examining his resume up to this point could give us a decent idea of what we can expect.

    He has finished in the top four in Cy Young voting three times in the last four years, including a win in 2010. He finished second in 2009, despite winning 19 games and losing just five with a sub-2.50 ERA.

    Given the team he plays for, his wins totals have been unsurprisingly low over the last three seasons: 13 in 2010 (12 losses), 14 in 2011 (14 losses), and 13 last season (nine losses). But his sub-3.00 ERA and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched over this span has been nothing short of fantastic.

    Also, he's a workhorse, averaging nearly 240 innings per season over the last four. This may be what caused the "wear and tear" that cropped up recently, but it doesn't seem to be anything major.

    It's important to note that Hernandez will only be turning 27 this April. He may have already thrown a perfect game, but it's possible that we have yet to see the best of what this young ace has to offer.

    If he can continue to be a dominant pitcher over the length of his new deal, it could go down as one of the best deals in recent memory. Mariners fans will certainly be hoping this is the case.

    He is the face of their franchise, the lone star in a team of average players. They've got a cheering section dedicated solely to rooting him on. He truly is the "King" of Seattle. And he is about to get paid like one.


    Statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com