As you've undoubtedly heard by now, the Mariners have reportedly come to an agreement with Felix Hernandez on a seven year contract worth $175 million. The deal essentially buys out the remaining two years on Felix's current contract while also making him the highest paid pitcher in baseball history, beating out CC Sabathia's $161 million agreement with the Yankees in total value, as well as the average annual salary of Zack Greinke's new deal with the Dodgers ($24.5 per year).
*- Until Clayton Kershaw breaks it.
It's an enormous commitment for the Mariners to make. To be fair, the M's are not a small market team: the club's payroll has exceeded $100 million before, and despite a brutal, attendance-decimating decade, still sits north of $80 million. The Chone Figgins contract would have been a disaster for a franchise like Tampa Bay or Oakland, but as a mid-market team, the Mariners have been able to survive throwing $36 million down the drain.
The M's would feel a bit more of a pinch if this deal doesn't pan out. Nobody's confusing the M's with the Yankees or Dodgers, and if Felix turns into a pumpkin overnight, it's a potentially a franchise-crippling contract. Felix will probably tie up at least 20% of the payroll for most of the life of his deal (and significantly more than that over the first couple of years) and at $25 million per annum, that's an enormous investment.
It's especially risky for a pitcher. I know that Felix has been one one of the most reliable starters in baseball since he entered the league, but his track record thus far has very little bearing on his durability in the future. To use just one of many examples, look at Brandon Webb. Webb was as durable as they come for Arizona in the mid-2000's, entering the league in 2003 and never missing a start through 2008 while regularly racking up 200+ innings a season. Then, he started on Opening Day in 2009, his shoulder went kerplooie, and he never pitched in the big leagues again. It's a sad story but it's also a telling one. Pitchers get hurt, pitchers regress, and oftentimes there's no rhyme or reason for why they fall apart. Any long term contract with a starter is a gamble.
But this is a chance that I think the Mariners needed to take. From a competitive standpoint, the M's have been relying on Felix for several seasons, and if we're being realistic about their odds to contend, they're going to need to do so for the foreseeable future as well. We all know the numbers: he's posted 24 fWAR with a 2.81/3.03/3.22 slash line in a league-leading 954 innings since 2009. And while some might suggest that Felix's numbers are a product of his home park, his road ERA over that time (2.74) leads all of baseball. Which is incredible, particularly considering that he made only of those road starts in Safeco Field.* He's been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the last four seasons, and at just twenty-six years old, he could keep that title for years into the future.
*- That Marlins series was weird, wasn't it?
He might be even more important from a marketing perspective. Felix is arguably the most popular athlete in all of Seattle, and he's certainly the face of the Mariner franchise. With all the self-inflicted bad publicity the Mariners have saddled themselves with in recent years (the Sonics arena, constant mediocrity, the Josh Lueke fiasco, the Bedard deal, etc.), they couldn't afford to separate themselves from the team's best and most beloved player. Ultimately, Felix is important enough to the organization to justify his enormous contract. There's no questioning the fact that he's one of the league's few true aces and that his value to the organization extends beyond the field.
Felix apparently loves Seattle. Perhaps he likes the weather. Maybe he thrives on being "the guy" on the Mariners. Either way, he's decided to spend the prime of his career in the Pacific Northwest and Mariner fans should be ecstatic that he's chosen to do so.