What A Contract Extension for Felix Might Look Like
For the last year, the Mariners have made it very clear that they weren’t interested in trading Felix Hernandez. People kept calling and Jack kept saying no. He wanted to build around Felix, not use Felix to get new building blocks. Now that Felix has thrown a perfect game, is turning into a local hero, and the team is playing quality baseball, that plan no longer looks so far fetched. And so, it’s time for the organization to finally put the Felix trade rumors to rest, and sign him to another long term contract.
He’s said he wants to be here. The Mariners want to keep him, and rightfully so. Any thought of trading Felix should be dismissed at this point – it would undo all of the good will the organization is rebuilding with the fan base right now. No amount of prospects are worth telling your fans to stop being excited about the franchise and go back to ignoring baseball for a few more years. Winning with Felix is the best plan the Mariners have, and they can start their off-season shopping by getting their franchise player locked up beyond 2014.
So, what would it take to get him locked up? Maybe not as much as you might think.
Felix is currently owed $39.5 million over the next two seasons before he’d be eligible for free agency. To figure out how much the M’s would have to tack on to those two years, we can look at what other pitchers have gotten when they’ve decided to re-sign with their clubs in recent years. Using MLBTradeRumor’s Extension Tracker, and filtering for pitchers who have gotten extensions with between 3-6 years of service time, we get the following contracts for premium young pitchers:
Cole Hamels: 6 years, $144 million, limited no-trade
Matt Cain: 5 years, $112 million,
Jered Weaver: 5 years, $85 million, full no-trade
Justin Verlander: 5 years, $80 million
Felix Hernandez: 5 years, $78 million, limited no-trade
Hamels and Cain were both just a few months away from achieving free agency, Weaver signed his deal with one year and a couple of months left on his contract, and Verlander and Felix both signed their extensions when they were two years away from hitting the market. As you can see from the difference in salaries, the size of a player’s extensions is heavily determined by how close he is to being a free agent. Hamels and Cain are very good pitchers, but they got more than Verlander and Felix by waiting longer to sign their contracts, thus taking on more risk and gaining more leverage in negotiations. Once you start getting close to the point where you can let the market dictate your price, you can demand a significant amount more than if you’re several years away from that position.
Felix is several years away from free agency. That doesn’t mean the Mariners can low-ball him, but it does mean that they don’t have to guarantee him the same money he’d get if he was a free agent this winter. When you think about what Felix is worth, and what he might get as a free agent, you probably start thinking that he would have a shot at being the first pitcher to get $200 million. Two years from free agency, however, it’s a good bet that he’d settle for half of that.
Using the previous history of guys two years from free agency, the M’s could offer Felix an additional $105 million over five years, and it wouldn’t be insulting in the least. That would bring his total guaranteed compensation to $145 million over seven years, making it the second largest commitment a team has ever made to a pitcher, behind only the contract CC Sabathia got from the Yankees, when he was a free agent and was negotiating with significant leverage. Adding 5/105 to his current deal would push him past Hamels, so everyone could accurately call it the largest contract extension ever given to a pitcher. And it would blow away what Weaver and Cain got, even though both were closer to free agency when they signed their deals.
Honestly, if Felix doesn’t care about getting past Hamels, it might not even take that much. The gap between what that offer would guarantee Felix and the comparable extensions for other high quality pitchers is really large, and would put Felix in a class by himself. Depending on how comfortable they are with making an initial offer that is a bit lower, they might even be able to get something done by adding on something like 4/85, which would push his total guarantee to 6/125 and still have him come out ahead of Cain, Weaver, and Verlander. And, if Felix’s words are to be believed, he cares more about making sure he’s in Seattle than he does about collecting as much money as possible, so the team could offer him a full no-trade clause to buy down some of the price. No-trades are of significant value to players, and they often take significantly less money to get them. Since the Mariners plan is essentially to sink or swim with Felix, giving him a no-trade is worth considering, especially if he’ll knock $10-$15 million off the sticker price to get one.
If Felix was just interested in maximizing his total income, then he might say he’s better off waiting until he gets to free agency, but if Felix was about maximizing total income, then he wouldn’t have forfeited the right to become a free agent at age 25 to begin with. The Mariners can make Felix a legitimate offer in the 4-5 year, $85-$105 million range tacked on the end of his current deal, and everyone can just cement this as a relationship that is built to last.
This should be step one of the team’s off-season plan. Tell every prospective free agent that you’ve just committed to build around your franchise player, and that Seattle is a team on the upswing with an ace that isn’t going anywhere. Any kind of long term deal for a pitcher is risky, but not keeping Felix is an even bigger risk. He’s bringing respectability back to Seattle, and re-energizing a group of fans that needed something to grab onto. Felix is what they’re grabbing onto. Let them keep hanging onto Felix for the foreseeable future.