Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The King’s reign continues

The endless taunts from Yankee fans could be brushed away at the time, but deep down they created a sense of hopelessness and dread.

The New York Yankees, or some other big-spending team, were going to snatch Felix Hernandez from the Seattle Mariners and there was nothing M’s fans could do about it.

They had lost their best players before (Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson etc) and, however much they tried to hold on to Felix’s proclaimed desire to stay, it was crushingly inevitable that Hernandez would follow.

But then on Thursday evening, suddenly everything changed. We found out that King Felix’s reign in Seattle will continue for years to come.

The news wasn’t quite as definitive as first appeared. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweeted that the Mariners were on the verge of agreeing a record seven-year, $175 million contract with their ace. That staggering headline sum was then reduced by later reports, such as from ESPN’s Buster Olney, to be a five-year, $135.5m contract extension (in practice it’s the same as Nightengale’s figure, with the other two years and $39.5m being what Hernandez has remaining on his current contract) and then ‘MLB sources’ clarified that an agreement actually hadn’t been reached just yet.

All of which was simply clarifying the precise details. The conclusion is the same: in the coming weeks Hernandez will sign a contract that ties him to Seattle for the next seven years and will pay him a little short of £111m, or just over £300k per week for the duration.

Away from the objective analysis, there is always something joyous in seeing a team retain their star player. Fans have become conditioned to expect their heroes to walk away, leaving them with mere memories and a desolate mix of rejection and betrayal. It’s an emotional and irrational viewpoint, but that’s part of what being a fan leads you to.

When Stan Musial passed away recently, much was made of him being a one-team man and his place in St. Louis Cardinal folklore partly as a result. Albert Pujols was held in the same regard by Cardinal fans until the Los Angeles Angels waved $240m in front of his eyes a year ago.

The comparisons between the two are as obvious as they are clearly unfair. No one knows for sure whether Musial would have ‘remained loyal’ to the Cardinals had free agency existed in his day and, frankly, when you stop and think rationally for a moment it’s difficult to doubt that Stan the Man would have made the same decision if placed in the same position.

Away from the emotion, the only way a team can keep a star player is to pay them somewhere close to what they are worth on the market, even if the player may be willing to accept a little less than the maximum available if that means staying somewhere he enjoys and where his family are settled.

In the case of Pujols, the Cardinals were not willing to come close to the Angels’ offer and so the two parted ways. St. Louis made a business decision and it was an entirely understandable one.

Are the Mariners making a similarly defensible decision in investing so much money in Hernandez? Giving a long-term contract to a pitcher comes with significant risk due to the potential of an injury to both make them miss a substantial amount of games and then not to be able to recapture their previous dominance.

Weighing up the risk is not an easy process. Hernandez has had a clean bill of health since making his Major League debut as a 19 year old in 2005. It says a lot about the precariousness of pitchers that such a positive attribute can lead to the pessimistic prognosis that the amount of innings he has therefore pitched (1620.1 in the Majors so far) may mean that an arm injury is, if not around the corner, coming along the next street. The Mariners know Hernandez’s condition better than anybody, so they are best-placed to make the call.

Seattle are not likely to challenge for a playoff spot in 2013, but every organization’s goal is to develop a winning team and to do that you need to have good players. There has been a theory over the past couple of seasons that the Mariners should trade Hernandez because of the current team’s lack of competitiveness. It’s one I didn’t subscribe to.

If you trade an established star, not simply a good Major Leaguer but one of the very best starting pitchers, you do so in the knowledge that the prospects acquired may never pan out (see Justin Smoak, who the Mariners insisted on receiving from the Texas Rangers when they traded Cliff Lee). You can still build a team of talented youngsters by trading other players (as the Mariners did last year with Michael Pineda) and making good selections in the amateur draft (as the Mariners have done with their three highly-touted pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker).

When you’ve got an elite player they should only be traded if a) you know you have no chance of keeping them for longer, b) you get completely bowled over by an offer you cannot refuse, or c) the player is in his early 30s and he’ll be well in decline before you are competitive again.

For all but the very poorest teams, paying one elite player $20m-25m shouldn’t tie the hands of the GM from putting together a competitive roster, especially with the new national TV contracts coming on stream. If the Mariners’ young pitchers, and hopefully a few hitters, develop then King Felix will be the perfect player to lead the way in a year or two. And if everything comes together out of nowhere – as with the Orioles and A’s in 2012 – in a year before that then the M’s will increase their chances of making the opportunity count by having an ace that no team would want to face in the playoffs.

From an objective point of view, and from the emotional fan’s perspective, Seattle’s decision to commit to their King makes complete sense.

Rounding the bases

It’s a blow to Venezuela and the World Baseball Classic, but King Felix’s decision to skip the event is entirely understandable considering his ongoing contract negotiations. Even though the idea that the WBC creates much of an increased injury risk has been debunked – players regularly complain about the current off-season/Spring Training regimen and it’s not as if it’s the product of rigorous, meticulous research – getting the contract sorted with no distractions has to be the priority.

One of the most obvious arguments against the WBC injury claim is that there is no cut-and-dried way to prevent injuries and they are simply a part of sport. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter is the latest example of this truism and it looks like this latest setback will end the veteran’s career. It’s been a fine career too and his period with the Cardinals, after starting with the Blue Jays, had a strange symmetry.  His first three years with the team ended in a World Series triumph in 2006 and after missing virtually all of 2007 and 2008 through injury, he gave the Cards another three strong years that again culminated in a World Series victory in 2011.

Whilst the Mariners were set to invest in King Felix, the Houston Astros continued their crusade to field a ‘Major League’ team for as little money as possible by trading Jed Lowrie to the Oakland A’s. The Astros’ General Manger Jeff Luhnow is pursuing a much-needed rebuilding strategy, however MLB and the Players Association should be demanding answers as to what is happening with the revenue that the Astros will generate this year – and more pertinently the money they will receive through national TV contracts and other pooled resources – beyond what is spent on the projected $25m Major League payroll and the limited money they are allowed to invest in amateur talent drafts under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The protracted sale of the organization to a group led by Jim Crane was indicative of the doubts some MLB owners had about Crane’s business past and you would expect they will be pressing to have the Astros’ plans put under considerable scrutiny. Astros fans will be hoping the money is being set aside to fund future free-agent spending and to keep hold of some of the young talent they intend to develop over the next few seasons. Cynics will suspect that might not be the case and Crane’s recent claim that the Astros lost money over the last five years doesn’t inspire much confidence.

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