Mariners’ message to free agents: We spend

February 8, 2013 

When I returned the phone call from the office Thursday morning, the boss got right to the point.

“Have you heard the news,” he asked, “about Felix Hernandez?”

Uh oh, I thought. During the days before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, baseball news is almost never good news. Gloomy scenarios raced through my mind.

Felix had been traded. Felix’s name had been linked to that creepy anti-aging clinic in south Florida. Felix had suffered the sort of freak injury more frequent with talented major league players than normal people — slicing a finger tendon while paring an apple, say, or burning himself (as former pitcher Atlanta Braves John Smoltz once did) while ironing a shirt he happened to be wearing.

The suspense built for a second or two. I had to know.

“What’s going on with Felix Hernandez?”

“It’s been reported,” the boss said, “that he’s agreed to a contract extension with the Mariners — $175 million over the next seven years.”

Well, the report appears to be true – broken by USA Today national baseball writer Bob Nightengale – and the numbers break down like this: Felix agreed to a five-year extension worth $134.5 million that tacks on to his current deal, which guarantees him $40.5 million over the next two years.

Good news? This was not merely good news. This was joyous and triumphant news: Because King Felix had hit the jackpot, the rest of us can celebrate seven years of all quiet on the King Felix contract front.

No more talk about the

Yankees, Dodgers or Angels posing an outrageous offer to the 2014 free agent. No more speculation about Hernandez’s impatience with an organizational rebuilding project that’s four years into another projected fourth-place finish.

No more moping about Seattle’s star-crossed history of keeping its stars in Seattle. We’re looking at seven years of heavenly tranquility.

Sorry, that’s overstating it. The respite regarding Hernandez’s future with the Mariners will last maybe only five years, through 2017, when the pitcher, at age 32, approaches the outskirts of another contract-extension dilemma.

Still, with $175 million guaranteeing Hernandez the label of “highest paid pitcher in baseball history,” conjecture has been quelled. Felix Hernandez not only belongs to the Mariners today, but he also belongs to them for thousands of tomorrows.

General manager Jack Zduriencik doesn’t talk about contract negotiations — he’d sooner opine on Roe vs. Wade — but his comments during the Mariners’ recent pre-spring training media luncheon were revealing. Instead of opening with the standard fluff praising the ownership’s one-step-at-a-time commitment toward building a playoff contender, Zduriencik detailed the frustrating, ultimately futile pursuit of acquiring an unspecified free agent (Josh Hamilton, obviously) and another unspecified impact hitter (Justin Upton, obviously) through a trade.

“We went down some roads that didn’t quite work out,” said Zduriencik. “But I said on many occasions that at the right time, ownership would allow us to do something that was outside the box. I think certainly, in one of our challenges this winter, they allowed us to do that.”

In other words, Zduriencik was saying, the team ownership is far from the tepid, tight-fisted group it’s perceived to be. The club offered Hamilton crazy money – Yankees money – to relocate to Seattle. And it offered a package of coveted prospects, relatively cheap on the payroll, in exchange for Upton and the $38 million he’s owed through 2015.

Hamilton’s response was no thanks. Upton’s response was no way. So Zduriencik turned to Hernandez – who first signed with the club as a 16-year-old, and has come to regard Seattle as a home – and offered a contract lavish enough to qualify as historic.

Are the Mariners pulling a show-off stunt by guaranteeing $175 million to a player whose career likely will be derailed by an injury requiring major surgery? Of course. Is their long-term investment fraught with potential headaches and heartaches? For sure.

But ownership sent a message to the next wave of free agents following Josh Hamilton, and the next wave of no-trade clause talents following Justin Upton. By assuring Felix Hernandez will make more money than any pitcher who has ever lived, the Mariners are sending a message that’s turning heads on two coasts, all while awakening a sleepy, cynical fan base.

They mean business.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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