It’s been a ritual for the past few years, and it’s not going to stop any time soon. The off-season is a time to dream on what the Yankees can become, and normally those dreams start with Felix Hernandez atop the rotation. The Mariners finished in the AL West cellar for the second straight year, and that will lead people to believe that they’d trade their ace — who is perhaps the AL’s best pitcher — in order to start a rebuilding effort. If the Mariners ever made Felix available, the Yankees would likely stand in front of the bidding line.
Last winter, following a flurry of comments and emails suggesting the Yankees pry Felix from the Mariners, I wrote a post on why the Mariners will not trade him. Predictably, he remained in Seattle all year. But after another last place finish will the Mariners finally part with their ace and start a true rebuilding process? Unfortunately, I am here to rain on the parade again. The Mariners will again retain Hernandez’s services this off-season.
The Mariners Situation
It’s easy to look at the Mariners and write them off as a team in need of a rebuild. Again, they’ve finished last in the AL West for two straight seasons and can’t seem to muster any semblance of offense. It might seem as though they’d benefit by trading their most tradable commodity in exchange for some high-end bats.
At the same time, the Mariners do have some reinforcements. Dustin Ackley established himself with a fine rookie campaign and will likely hold down second base, and a premium lineup spot, for years to come. Justin Smoak flashed his potential at the outset in 2011. Guys such as Kyle Seagar and Trayvon Robinson could provide support. The Mariners also have a good crop of pitchers — even after trading Doug Fister their starters ranked 8th in the majors in WAR — with more help on the way.
The pitching-heavy nature of the franchise might suggest an arms-for-bats trade, but, as we’ll explore in further depth, Felix is not the guy to get the job done. He’s the guy they want out in front of the kids as they come up through the minors and eventually help the big league club.
In 2012 Hernandez enters the third year of the five-year, $78 million extension he signed with the Mariners. That means he’s theirs for the next three seasons, though he’s not quite a bargain anymore. The Mariners will pay a little more than $60 million for his services. Again, wouldn’t a bad team want to shed that kind of contract and rebuild?
For a player of lesser ability than Felix that might be true. But for the Mariners, Felix’s contract can actually be seen as a blessing. On the open market he’d surely get the highest average annual value and greatest overall package of any pitcher in history — think seven years and around $170 million. That is, the Mariners are getting him at a discount of around $12 million over these next three years.
Make no mistake: the Mariners can spend. Their payroll reached its apex, $117 million, in 2008. If they’re contending it can approach those levels again. While Felix’s salary would still constitute a significant portion of such a high payroll, he’d still be worth it. There just aren’t many pitchers who can provide his kind of value. The Mariners also find themselves in a favorable payroll situation. They have only $59.5 million committed to 2012, and after the season Ichiro’s deal expires. That leaves them with plenty of room to not only house Felix’s salary, but also to add free agents around him.
Felix’s Preference for Seattle
Had Felix not signed his extension in early 2010, he’d have just hit free agency. That is, he was just two years away when he signed his deal. Surely the long-term security of a $78 million deal played a large role in his decision. But he’s also professed a desire to continue pitching in Seattle. That could keep him up there for not only the three remaining years of his contract, but for many years after that.
That’s not to say that the’ll give the Mariners a significant hometown discount. They’ll have to pay top dollar in order to retain Hernandez. But, again, given his rare abilities combined with Seattle’s ability to spend, it’s not hard to imagine him spending the rest of his career in the Pacific Nothwest. Given his preference for his current team, he could certainly walk the same path as Cliff Lee, taking “enough” money from the Mariners while spurning slightly more lucrative offers to move east. Remember, unlike Lee, and many other free agent pitchers, Felix will already have earned over $80 million by the time he hits free agency.
Even if the Mariners sign him to the aforementioned seven-year, $170 million contract, they’ll still be getting a pitcher in his prime. Hernandez turns 26 around Opening Day, meaning the seven-year contract will cover his age-29 through age-35 seasons. While any long-term pitching contract brings risks, paying for a pitcher’s prime years mitigates some of that risk.
Felix’s Rare Ability
While I’ve soured on WAR for a number of reasons, one big reason is that it understates the value of high-WAR players. That is, players worth seven wins over replacement per season are exceedingly rare. They are worth far, far more than double a 3.5-win player, because 3.5-win players are far more common. To take this further, a team with one 7-win player and one 0-win player is in a far better position than a team with two 3.5-win players. The first team can replace the 0-win player, but the second team will have trouble finding reasonable, and reasonably priced, upgrades over the 3.5-win players.
In the last three seasons Felix easily ranks as a top-five pitcher in the bigs. His 18.5 WAR, in fact, ranks fifth. He has thrown the second-most innings and ranks fourth in ERA and eighth in FIP. The only pitchers who compare to him are Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. That’s some pretty elite company. That actually brings us into the next point.
Get Value Now, Trade Later
If the Mariners do plan to trade Felix, why would they do so now? We’ve already seen that there is simply no way they could get anything approaching equal value right now. They could get a prospect who has the potential to produce seven-win seasons. But prospects bring no guarantees. Chances are they’d get a package with a number of high-end prospects. But chances are they’d be looking at two 3.5-win players, rather than a single seven-win player.
If they can’t get equal value right now, and if they don’t have payroll issues, why trade him? Why not wait until later, when they can still pluck a premium prospect? In the meantime they could still make a run. If they, for instance, signed Prince Fielder this off-season there’s a chance they could make a run for the AL West crown in 2012. Why trade Felix now when that chance is potentially on the horizon?
The Mariners know Felix’s trade value first hand. Look at what they got for Cliff Lee at the 2010 trade deadline. He had just a half year of team control remaining, and they managed to trade him for the No. 13 prospect in the game. At the trade deadline in 2014 they could pull similar haul for Felix. If they traded him the winter prior they could get an even larger haul. Teams, especially rich teams like the Yankees, can afford to pay premiums for rare talents such as Felix.
If the Mariners had payroll issues this might be a different story. But they don’t. If the Mariners had a barren farm system they might reconsider. But they don’t. If Felix was heading for free agency after the 2012 season maybe they’d seek to trade him. But he isn’t. If Felix were a solid No. 1/No. 2-type pitcher they might find an attractive package of prospects from another team. But he’s not. All of these factors conspire to keep Felix in Seattle.
The Mariners have a rare commodity on their hands, rarer still because he’s so young in addition to being so good. There is no way they can get anything resembling equal value for him right now. They could get a few gambles, but the chances of them landing even one future seven-win player, never mind multiple, are slim to nil. At the same time, they could likely get a considerable return for Felix in a few years time. Why would they trade him now for what they could probably get in a year or two?
As Yankees fans we dream of the elite. The very best is all that will do. Felix certainly ranks among the very best. We’d all love to see him on the roster for 2012 and beyond. Unfortunately, he is property of a team that has no incentive to deal him right now. Perhaps in the future the Yankees can pry Felix away from the Mariners. But right now, as a 26-year-old with three years remaining of team control, he’s staying in Seattle.