The Deciding Factor
Yesterday, we looked at what the M’s needed to do this off-season in order to get themselves into a spot where they could line up in April and call themselves legitimate contenders. It’s not an easy path – they need to add a bunch of wins without a ton of money to spend or a lot of obvious upgrades to make. But before they decide on any particular course of action, there’s one issue that has to be resolved, because it is the domino that drives the rest of the decisions all winter long.
I speak, of course, of Felix Hernandez. You all know the situation – 23-years-old, two years away from free agency, and just established himself as one of the game’s premier pitchers. His talent is unquestionable, and if he was a position player, you’d hand him a blank check for as many years as he would sign for. But he’s a pitcher, and the risk of giving long term, big money contracts to pitchers is remarkably high. The M’s don’t have the luxury of time anymore. This is the winter where they have to decide whether they’re going to give Felix a massive contract or not.
If they’re willing to accept the risk associated with a 4-6 year deal for a pitcher, then they have to make every effort to get him signed now. The opportunity to get a big discount has passed. He’s going to be a rich man whether he signs an extension or not, as he’s looking at a salary of around $10 million for 2010 even if he decides not to sign a long term deal here. In order to get him to give up the potential jackpot he’ll hit if he makes it to free agency in two years, the team will have to make him an offer that compensates him as one of the game’s premier pitchers for years to come. They’re going to have to set a new precedent, shattering every record for a contract given to a pitcher who isn’t yet eligible for free agency. Or else Felix will just take the risk and wait, and once he’s decided to do that, he becomes an asset with declining value the longer the M’s keep him.
In all likelihood, the choice will come down to giving him something like $100 million over 6 years or trading him.
Both paths have their risks and rewards. If you sign him to something like 6/100, you’re trying to win immediately. At that point, you’ve risked enough of your franchise’s future that you’re committing to trying to make it pay off with a division title starting in 2010. Now, instead of focusing primarily on finding young players to build around, the M’s would be in a position where the future takes a bit of a back seat to the present. Practically every pitcher is a time bomb headed for surgery, with the only question being when they go under the knife. Once you’ve guaranteed a massive paycheck to a starting pitcher, you’re running on borrowed time – you can’t sit around and try to build around that pitcher, because there’s a pretty decent chance that he’ll be hurt by the time the guys from your farm system get to the big leagues.
So, if you sign Felix, you’re looking for guys who can help you win right away. You’re putting Morrow on the block and looking for a more reliable #2 starter. You’re sending Mike Carp back to Tacoma and going with two veterans at 1B/DH. You’re in it to win it, because the clock is ticking, and if Felix’s arm blows up before you win anything, you’re going to have a hard time contending with a $17 million albatross on the books every year.
On the other hand, if you decide that you just don’t want to be the kind of organization that bets its future on a pitcher, and you’re not willing to meet Felix’s demands, you have to start taking offers for him, and no matter how good Jack Zduriencik is as a GM, the Mariners aren’t winning anything in 2010 without Felix Hernandez. You can try to get some major league ready players back in any Felix deal, but there’s no replacing a +5 win pitcher. You might get enough talent back to put together another .500 season with encouraging performances from a new young core, but you’re not winning the AL West without Felix.
That, obviously, leads to an entirely different kind of off-season plan. In a post-Felix world, you probably listen to offers for David Aardsma too, because the team can afford to not have a “proven closer” if they’re playing for the future. You give long looks to Saunders, Tui, Carp, and Moore next year rather than displacing them with better players who have less future value. You probably cut payroll again and try to create enough flexibility to make a big splash in 2011. But in this scenario, you’re admitting that nothing short of a miracle will lead you to the playoffs in 2010.
There is potentially a third option, but I’m not much of a fan of it and I hope it doesn’t come to pass. Theoretically, the team could keep Felix without signing him to a long term deal, put a team around him to try to win in 2010, and then shop him at the deadline if they’re not contending, but that plan requires too many assumptions for my liking. The Blue Jays just found out how tough it can be to try to extract premium pricing at the trade deadline when the Yankees don’t need pitching, the Mets aren’t in the playoff race, and the Red Sox realize they’re bidding against themselves. By waiting until July, you’re letting teams who will be interested this winter drop out of the race, creating a depressed market for his services. The “teams pay crazy prices at the deadline” theory has been mostly eradicated – if you want top dollar, you trade in the off-season.
So, before the team starts pursuing their off-season agenda, they have to figure out Felix. Are they willing to take the risks that come with huge contracts for pitchers? If so, go into winning mode. If not, then we’re still building for the future, and going after a very different type of player.
Felix’s future in Seattle needs to be determined before the team begins to make too many changes. It’s decision time. Pay up or trade him.