Sports

Pitchers in the fold

After news of a possible contract extension for Seattle Mariners star pitcher Felix Hernandez leaked via Twitter on Monday evening, more details of the reported deal trickled and tweeted out Tuesday.

Venezuelan baseball writer Francisco Blavia, who has ties close to Hernandez, reported the extension is for $78 million over five years. There will be no option year and the contract also features several performance bonuses that could easily push its total well over $80 million.

Several other news outlets, including ESPN and SI.com, also confirmed the numbers surrounding the deal.

While the Mariners would not confirm the deal, it appears the two sides should finish up the remainder of negotiations sometime today or Thursday.

Hernandez, who must travel from his home in Venezuela to Seattle to take a physical before the deal can be finalized, will likely sign the contract Thursday or Friday.

Hernandez, 23, is coming off his best season, going 19-5 with a 2.46 ERA. He finished second in the American League in voting for the Cy Young Award and made the All-Star team while setting career highs in strikeouts (217) and innings pitched (2382/3).

A five-year extension would buy out two of Hernandez’s arbitration-eligible seasons and his first three seasons of free agency. Still, he would be 28 years old when the contract expires.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik isn’t just focused on the Hernandez deal. Tuesday marked the first day that teams with players who are arbitration eligible could exchange figures.

This period lasts a few weeks, but Zduriencik didn’t need that long to sign a pair of key bullpen pieces.

Closer David Aardsma and set-up man Mark Lowe avoided salary arbitration by signing one-year contracts. Aardmsa received a big increase, going from $419,000 to $2.75 million. Lowe more than doubled his $419,000 contract, signing for $1.15 million.

“We are pleased to have David and Mark signed for 2010,” Zduriencik said in a press release. “It was an important process to get to this point and avoid any distraction as we prepare for the upcoming season.”

Aardsma was looking for a speedy agreement.

“It worked out well,” Aardsma said. “I think we’re all very happy. We are all happy that we got the deal done and now we can worry about the season.”

It seemed likely that Aardsma was due a pretty hefty salary increase following a magical 2009 season. He finished fourth in the AL in saves with 38 while setting career-highs in innings pitched (71), appearances (73) and strikeouts (80)

“When you sit down and really figure out the numbers, it is something you expect,” he said.

Even Aardsma couldn’t have expected his rapid and somewhat surprising rise to elite closer. Aardsma was playing for his fourth organization in five professional seasons when he was designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox following the 2008 season. He was acquired by Zduriencik for left-handed pitcher Fabian Williamson.

Aardsma came to 2009 spring training hoping to earn a spot in the Seattle bullpen. After an outstanding spring and a solid start of the season as a set-up man, Aardsma stepped in after then-closer Brandon Morrow faltered in May and assumed the closing duties.

“It’s always in the back of your mind that it could happen,” he said of his success. “That’s really what made this season separate from anything. I didn’t worry about that.”

Lowe is also coming off one of his best seasons, setting career highs in appearances (75), innings pitched (80) and strikeouts (69). He was 2-7 with a 3.26 ERA and three saves.

More importantly, he’s taken over the eighth inning set-up role to get the game to Aardsma.

Hernandez, Aardsma and Lowe were three of the five Mariners players that were arbitration eligible. The remaining two were both recently acquired – reliever Brandon League and first baseman Casey Kotchman. Seattle has until arbitration hearings begin Feb. 1 to negotiate those contracts and thus avoid hearings.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners/

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