Friday, February 8, 2013
SEATTLE — OK, Mariners fans, it’s time to raise your arms heavenward, kick your right leg high, and do some cosmic and cathartic Felixing.
This franchise has not provided much to cheer about in recent years, and a disproportionate amount has been put forth by Felix Hernandez. From the Cy Young to the perfect game, and in myriad gems in-between (including far too many stalwart outings undermined by a criminal lack of offensive support), Hernandez has been a constant of excellence floating in a sea of mediocrity — and that’s using the term charitably.
Which is why a vague dread has pervaded the local populace, the fear that Hernandez will eventually do what virtually all other Mariners stars do: leave.
Randy Johnson was traded after a contract dispute. Ken Griffey Jr. asked to be dealt closer to home. Alex Rodriguez jumped at an obscene offer from Texas. Even Ichiro failed to go wire-to-wire as a Mariner, executing a trade last July.
But Hernandez, it appears, isn’t going anywhere. Not now, anyway, with the news Thursday that a contract extension through 2019 is imminent. In King’s Court in the left-field corner, they’re hoisting their K-cards and letting out a lusty roar.
That deal in itself, of course, is no guarantee Hernandez will be the next Edgar Martinez, a beloved superstar who never leaves. But it’s a very nice place to start.
Certain national columnists have made a cottage industry in recent years of urging the Mariners to trade Hernandez (preferably to the Yankees, who apparently have a birthright to King Felix).
Hidden within that condescending line of thinking was one compelling point: the notion that the Mariners are far enough away from contention that they are wasting Hernandez’s prime. Rather than have Felix turn into a baseball version of Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald — a transcendent talent languishing with a flailing franchise — wouldn’t they be better served in their rebuilding efforts to get a haul of prospects for Hernandez?
The Mariners have rejected that notion, and they were right to do so. But that’s not to say they aren’t taking a huge risk by giving so many dollars for so many years to such a fragile commodity.
Pitchers get hurt. It’s an unavoidable fact of life when you’re hurling a sphere with an arm motion not intended by nature. The cautionary list of pitchers who have broken down after receiving large contracts is long and scary, from Mike Hampton to Johan Santana.
But for the Mariners, the only risk bigger than signing Felix Hernandez to a megadeal was letting him get away.
At this stage of the franchise’s existence, with fan disenchantment at its highest point ever, this is one case where the psychological value of retaining their most popular, and most productive, player can’t be minimized. That killer trade for five hotshot prospects might have been sellable from a baseball standpoint, but sometimes you have to do something that appeases the masses now.
And Hernandez is the right player upon whom to take that stand. He is the most precious commodity in baseball, a legitimate No. 1 starter. He is a workhorse who has never had a serious injury. He is still young, turning 27 on April 8.
Just as important, Hernandez has become an increasingly endearing figure. He already has foregone free agency once by signing a contract extension, and now he’s on the brink of doing it again. He has never once complained about the lack of offensive support he’s received, even as others express their frustration on his behalf.
Hernandez, in fact, has been the consummate team player, seeming to buy in completely to Jack Zduriencik’s rebuilding plan. He’s made his home in Seattle and by doing so has become a local icon. The unrestrained glee that greeted his perfect game last August was as much, I believe, out of happiness for Hernandez as for the feat itself.
Yeah, Hernandez could throw out his arm next week. But those hotshot prospects could be washouts, too. With the possibility of a prosperous reworking of their television deal looming in the fairly near future, this will be a wise investment of Mariners resources, one that shouldn’t cripple their ability to build around Hernandez.
For much of the winter, the biggest Mariners news has been who they DIDN’T get — Billy Butler, Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton.
Now, once the final contract details get ironed out, they can bask in the glow of one who stayed.