BY Art Thiel 10:50AM 02/08/2013

Thiel: Felix a better investment than Hamilton

The pending deal to make Felix Hernandez’s baseball’s highest paid pitcher is a break from Mariners’ inertia. Then again, given their predicament, did they really have a choice?

Felix Hernandez: In the real world, or course he’s not worth it. But in the sub-basement i bizarro world where the Mariners reside, he’s worth it. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Spotting a toddler who wobbles toward the edge a of deck with a one-foot drop-off,  the urge is strong to run to the rescue. But when will he learn about edges and gravity and the fact that it will hurt only for a little while?

So it is with the Mariners. They need to learn about risk in gentle ways. Which is why the pending mega-deal with Felix Hernandez has a utility in Seattle beyond any sabermetric measurement about his predictive decline to age 33.

The Mariners ownership needs to learn how to play big-boy baseball, which includes spending money extravagantly beyond what appears to be the frontiers of common sense. And $175 million over seven years for a player who does his primary job about 33 days a year, is out there.

But if they didn’t go at or above market for Hernandez, their guy, for whom would they? Josh Hamilton?

When I heard this winter that the Mariners were throwing serious cash at a physically worn and emotionally fragile recovering addict who will be 32 in May, I could not get out of my head the line from Otter in “Animal House”:

“This situation calls for a really futile and stupid gesture on somebody’s part.” Bluto: “We’re just the guys to do it.”

The Mariners were said to have offered a guaranteed $100 million over four years, with a couple of $25 million options. The Angels outbid the Mariners for Hamilton by offering a guaranteed five years at $125 million.

Maybe good for the Animals, er, Angels. Certainly better for the Mariners.

Despite the fact that Hamilton will probably hit 12 home runs in a single game against the Mariners this spring, he will be used up, sadly, before he gets close to the end of his contract. He was popping bolts and stripping gears with the Rangers at the end of last season. The hard miles of his old lifestyle will do him dirty with regard to the fine edge elite athletes must maintain at the highest level.

Instead the Mariners propose to spend almost the same money for a healthy 26-year-old they’ve known for nine years who actually likes playing baseball in Seattle for the Mariners. That is nearly as rare as a kiss from Lennay Kekua.

The Mariners are in the awkward position of having one really good player on a major league roster populated otherwise mostly by, well, guys. They have a fan base that is abandoning them by the cargo-ship load, locked in a geographical spot to which good players with choices won’t come, stuck in a division with two serious franchises and an annoyingly smart one, and burdened by an ownership that is generally regarded by most baseball insiders as among the worst in the the game.

Besides all that, they just got done paying $18 million annually for a singles hitter, and were scheduled to pay $19.2 million to Hernandez anyway for 2013. So is the leap to $25 million really that outlandish?

As one of the top five pitchers in the American League, Hernandez is a symbol. If his pending free agency forced a trade, it would represent the bleakest of many episodes of futility when it comes to player personnel. If he stays . . . well, it says they have a chance. Hernandez is like the beautiful starlet who marries the homely guy. We know now it’s mostly for the money, but jeez, maybe there’s something more.

The national media chorus has been consistent, saying that Hernandez is wasting his talent with the Mariners, and the club is missing a chance to get well faster by not trading him for multiple premium prospects. I even bought into that line of thinking, simply because I believed the Mariners ownership would not do what it proposing to do with Hernandez.

But as the franchise approaches its 2015 opt-out provision in the 10-year deal with its TV partner, ROOT Sports, the regional sports network, the owners must feel emboldened by the prospects of much greater revenues, locally as well as nationally, without having to do much more than sit there. And if they did even a little something, well, who knows? A .500 season, maybe.

But let’s not get carried away. A club doesn’t finish last in seven of the past nine seasons without a carefully constructed monolith of inertia. It is difficult to break old habits, as in, raising ticket prices without warning to fans whose departures had already set a Safeco Field record low in attendance.

So it is premature to say the pending deal for Hernandez represents a permanent turning on of the light above the operators of this franchise, in that they are finally aware they are entertainment purveyors in a market full of choices that perhaps is about to get a lot busier.

But as they toddle off the deck, cry for a moment, then realize that wasn’t so bad, it is possible to suggest they are at least thinking about playing some big-boy ball.


YourThoughts

  • tedsfrozenhead

    Great Animal House line!
    I love this deal. There is something about a home grown superstar that boarders on the pride one feels for family….
    Go M’s!

    • art thiel

      No doubt the M’s played the chord of sentiment here. Given the downbeats they have otherwise offered, SOMETHING lyrical had to be done.

  • Ronald Baugh

    I would hardly call Rosenthal’s argument “sabermeteric.” Juat because he uses ERA+ doesn’t mean it is “sabermetric. Going by general curves Felix is young, but his innings are high. Based on recent past pitchers with Felix’s profile the sabermetric argument is probably that the sample size is to small to know. All Rosenthal seems to say is that this is a big risk. He seems to believe that the Mariners could have gotten a haul of prospects in trading Felix. He ignores the risk of the prospects while highlighting the risk of Felix at this price. While his argument has some merit is is as biased as the Mariners side of the argument. The thing is no matter what the haul is, it is unlikely the Mariners would have gotten the once in a generation talent that is Felix.

    • art thiel

      I don’t believe I mentioned Rosenthal. There were several other writers who saw saber-cracks in Felix’s stats, particularly with his bad September. But your point about prospects is well taken. Everyone uses “prospects” as a generic term that somehow automatically creates equivalent value for Felix. I’m sure Jack Z has been received multiple offers, and I would bet that in each, the trading team has refused to give up its own No. 1 farm prospect. I’m sure the presumption that the the Mariners are just plain stupid grates at Jack. Now he doesn’t have to hear it.

  • Bruce Fergusson

    Ichiro is gone, the fences have come in, and Felix is signed–could it be the tide is turning?

  • jafabian

    I didn’t totally embrace Hamilton becoming a Mariner. Even with the fences coming in Safeco is still a pitchers park. The M’s should be going after a John Olerud-Randy Winn-Ichiro Suzuki type of hitter for their club. Contact doubles hitters with some speed to their game and a solid OBP. And until that happens they need to invest in their pitching and what better than a Cy Young winner with a perfect game on his resume? And a grand slam as well?

    Hopefully this is the start of something for the club. Absolutely grates on me that Ichiro is a Yankee. Sure he didn’t fit with the club anymore but its amazing how he fits in seamlessly with the Yankees. That how it should have been here but the club never invested in the right players after 2001. And they never invested properly with Ichiro, getting the right players around him. I’m hoping that’s changing with this signing of Felix.

    • art thiel

      The Mariners already have doubles hitters. They need ONE guy to drive them in so I understand the lust for Hamilton’s bat, but it is attached to a far riskier person.

      As far as Ichiro, he worked better in NY for the same reason he worked better in 2001 here — he wasn’t the primary focus. He likes attention on his terms, and not be the default face of the franchise because there simply is no one else.

  • Will

    I dunno, trading Felix makes sense. Lose one pitcher and get a whole other team in return. Who do you want? The Cards, Braves … How about 9 Yenkees? Of course, any swap naturally includes Mariner front office stuffed suits for a young, assertive, whip smart and hungry/wise management team.

    • art thiel

      A trade can make sense, but give the mediocre success rate of the Mariners in these deals (Cliff Lee the latest), it’s at least as great a risk as seven years for a pitcher. And as far as mgt, you have need to have value to make a trade.

      • Will

        Hah. Of course you’re correct. But, there’s always the dream of Seattle having a good-great baseball team.

  • maqman

    I’m old enough to have watched Robin Roberts pitch for the Phillies in the 1950s. One time he pitched 28 complete games in a row. He pitched over 300 innings six times in his career. Nolan Ryan once (in 1974) threw over 200 pitches in a 13 inning game. Neither of them had the benefit of today’s training and conditioning knowledge or facilities. Felix most likely won’t throw as many pitches as either of them in his career or throw any harder then the von Ryan Express did but he sure as hell can last through age 33 without requiring a miracle.

    Do the math and you will find games that Felix starts draw 19% more than games he doesn’t start. I think he probably draws a similar increase in TV viewers of M’s games. The M’s will get about $95MM next year from the MLB national media deal ($50MM) and their regional medial deal ($45MM). This will probably be their last season ever with a payroll under $100MM. After the 2014 season is over their regional media deal should exceed $100MM a season, given the competition between Fox, Time-Warner and Comcast to create a viable national competitor to ESPN by weaving together sufficient regional deals to make it believable. Foxs’s CEO acknowledged this a couple of days ago, it’s not a secret. I believe I also saw some mention of the team nearly having paid off their obligation on Safeco recently. They have got the money and the prospects and the incentive to build the team into a contender and they are more than half way there.