Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Sentences and Seattle

Rumors leaked out Tuesday that the Mariners were close to signing 23-year-old Cy Young runner-up Felix Hernandez to a five-year extension for $78 million. Predictably, there was much rejoicing. To Mariners fans, or even to sportswriters who don’t want to delve into this stuff too far, there are only two phrases from that sentence that they care about: “Cy Young runner-up” and “five-year extension.”

Maybe that’s the way it should be. After all, it’s not our money. And there is something to be said for getting the big rocks in place and letting the pebbles settle in around them.

But I was still surprised by the universal praise it from people who study this stuff. I probably shouldn’t be, because there seems to be some serious man-crushing towards Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik right now. Primarily because:

1) His team improved by 24 games in his first year as general manager.
2) The improvement came partially by improving the Mariners' defense, and nothing is sexier to the sabremetric bent than defense right now.
3) He ripped off the salary-dumping Phillies when acquiring left-handed stud pitcher Cliff Lee.

So, he’s revered. You know he’s revered because he threw $6 million into a trade for Milton Bradley - and was PRAISED for it.

For the record, I'm not drinking the Mariners kool-aid just yet. Some see the 2010 AL West Champions. I see a 3-4-5 lineup of, um, who exactly? Franklin Gutierrez (764 OPS last year)? Ken Griffey (.214 BA last year)? Milton Bradley (who might literally be the last guy in MLB that you want to depend on day in and day out)? So I might not see eye-to-eye with everyone else on the Mariners and, subsequently, Jack Z. Keep this in mind.

Anyway, I was still surprised that everyone viewed this as such a clear victory for the Mariners GM. To see why I was puzzled, you have to see the year-by-year breakdown of the contract. Here it is, reportedly:

$3.5 million signing bonus
$6.5 million in 2010
$10 million in 2011
$18.5 million in 2012
$19.5 million in 2013
$20M million in 2014.

See how the amount climbs so rapidly over the next three years and then levels off? There's a reason for that. It's because the Mariners had rights to Hernandez for the next two years and they only had to pay him what an arbitrator said he would be worth. And from looking at comparable players with the same amount of service time, they were going to need to pay him around $7.5 million in 2010 and around $12 million in 2011.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, after 2011 he would be a free agent, and then anyone could pay him whatever they wanted. And if he continued to throw like he did last year, he could have been paid a LOT of money. For instance, CC Sabathia makes $23 million/year. Johan Santana is averaging slightly less than that. That's the neighborhood that Hernandez could've been in.

So the Mariners basically had a choice. They could either...

1) Give him the contract they gave him - 5 years/$78 million or
2) Renew his contract for the next two years at approximately $20 million and then try to bring him back as a free agent.

Let's make it even simpler, though slightly less accurate. Hernandez's agent essentially offered the Mariners a 3-year contract for 2012, 2013 and 2014 for about $20 million per year - but they had to sign it now, two years ahead of time.

Does that represent a bargain? Sure. It saves them a few million dollars per year down the road. More importantly it keeps them from needing to sign him for much longer when he becomes a free agent.

But it also represents an incredible risk. If Hernandez slips at all from last year's Cy Young caliber performance, he's being overpaid. And if he's (knock, knock) hurt, as 23-year-old arms often are? Forget about it. It would makes the Eric Bedard circus look like a meditation class.

So why is a Twins Geek giving this so much thought? (Because he's a geek? And kind of sad, really?) Because the Twins face their own must-sign guy this offseason, Joe Mauer. If that gets done, I wonder if a Mariners Geek will wonder why the state of Minnesota is praising Bill Smith.

And I wonder if I'll be able to objectively evaluate that deal. Or even see beyond the phrases: "AL MVP winner" and "staying in Minnesota."


Daniel said...

Wow, after reading your comment, I had to think to myself, 'Would I prefer to depend on Nick Punto over Milton Bradley?' The saddest part is that I think I would prefer that. At least you know that Nicki is going to try, headfirst slides into first and all.

Bill@TDS said...

I've been a reader and fan for a long time, but I've got to disagree with just about everything here. First, I don't think even the biggest JackZ fans (and I'm one of them) would disagree that they could really use a big bat. Though of course they might end up with the best #s 1 and 2 hitters in MLB, so focusing on the 3-4-5 might not be entirely fair.

But about Felix: it's just (probably) not true that "if he slips at all from last year's Cy Young performance, he's being overpaid." If he (improbably) falls all the way back to his 2007-2008 performance, he's basically John Lackey. Who just got a contract with an AAV of $15.6 million from baseball's smartest team, and who FanGraphs says was "worth" almost $18m last year. Finding a happy medium between the two would likely be more than enough to justify the contract.

Your $20 million pitchers, Sabathia, Santana, and Halladay, are not being paid to put up 2.49 ERAs every year. If there were a pitcher we really thought was going to have Felix's 2009 every season, some team would pay him $25 or $30 million. Rather, they're being paid to eat up a lot of innings at a consistently very high quality. All pitchers are gambles, of course, but Felix is as good a bet as any (and certainly a better bet, come 2012-14, than any of those three other guys) to do that.

And finally, $20 million today is worth a lot more than $20 million in 2014 is worth today. And especially given the current state of the market, there's a very-good-to-almost-certain chance that free agents will be getting paid a lot more in 2012-14 than they are right now, and that contract will end up looking even better (kind of like how Beltre's Mariner deal climbed the scale from an utter joke to being the one decent move Bavasi ever made).

David said...

Nice to get some thoughtful criticism of JackZ, because with all the positive press he's been getting, you get the impression he's going to take over the world.

Regarding Bradley, though, you have to consider the move in context. He traded Carlos Silva's seemingly untradeable, toxic, awful contract for a player who, if things break alright, could give the M's exactly what they need, which is a big bat. Granted, this is Bradley, the poster child for "the best laid plans." But I liked the move - get rid of an utterly useless player for a player who could help.