Why the Mariners won’t trade Felix, redux

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

It’s been a ritual for the past few years, and it’s not going to stop any time soon. The off-season is a time to dream on what the Yankees can become, and normally those dreams start with Felix Hernandez atop the rotation. The Mariners finished in the AL West cellar for the second straight year, and that will lead people to believe that they’d trade their ace — who is perhaps the AL’s best pitcher — in order to start a rebuilding effort. If the Mariners ever made Felix available, the Yankees would likely stand in front of the bidding line.

Last winter, following a flurry of comments and emails suggesting the Yankees pry Felix from the Mariners, I wrote a post on why the Mariners will not trade him. Predictably, he remained in Seattle all year. But after another last place finish will the Mariners finally part with their ace and start a true rebuilding process? Unfortunately, I am here to rain on the parade again. The Mariners will again retain Hernandez’s services this off-season.

The Mariners Situation

It’s easy to look at the Mariners and write them off as a team in need of a rebuild. Again, they’ve finished last in the AL West for two straight seasons and can’t seem to muster any semblance of offense. It might seem as though they’d benefit by trading their most tradable commodity in exchange for some high-end bats.

At the same time, the Mariners do have some reinforcements. Dustin Ackley established himself with a fine rookie campaign and will likely hold down second base, and a premium lineup spot, for years to come. Justin Smoak flashed his potential at the outset in 2011. Guys such as Kyle Seagar and Trayvon Robinson could provide support. The Mariners also have a good crop of pitchers — even after trading Doug Fister their starters ranked 8th in the majors in WAR — with more help on the way.

The pitching-heavy nature of the franchise might suggest an arms-for-bats trade, but, as we’ll explore in further depth, Felix is not the guy to get the job done. He’s the guy they want out in front of the kids as they come up through the minors and eventually help the big league club.

Felix’s Contract

In 2012 Hernandez enters the third year of the five-year, $78 million extension he signed with the Mariners. That means he’s theirs for the next three seasons, though he’s not quite a bargain anymore. The Mariners will pay a little more than $60 million for his services. Again, wouldn’t a bad team want to shed that kind of contract and rebuild?

For a player of lesser ability than Felix that might be true. But for the Mariners, Felix’s contract can actually be seen as a blessing. On the open market he’d surely get the highest average annual value and greatest overall package of any pitcher in history — think seven years and around $170 million. That is, the Mariners are getting him at a discount of around $12 million over these next three years.

Make no mistake: the Mariners can spend. Their payroll reached its apex, $117 million, in 2008. If they’re contending it can approach those levels again. While Felix’s salary would still constitute a significant portion of such a high payroll, he’d still be worth it. There just aren’t many pitchers who can provide his kind of value. The Mariners also find themselves in a favorable payroll situation. They have only $59.5 million committed to 2012, and after the season Ichiro‘s deal expires. That leaves them with plenty of room to not only house Felix’s salary, but also to add free agents around him.

Felix’s Preference for Seattle

Had Felix not signed his extension in early 2010, he’d have just hit free agency. That is, he was just two years away when he signed his deal. Surely the long-term security of a $78 million deal played a large role in his decision. But he’s also professed a desire to continue pitching in Seattle. That could keep him up there for not only the three remaining years of his contract, but for many years after that.

That’s not to say that the’ll give the Mariners a significant hometown discount. They’ll have to pay top dollar in order to retain Hernandez. But, again, given his rare abilities combined with Seattle’s ability to spend, it’s not hard to imagine him spending the rest of his career in the Pacific Nothwest. Given his preference for his current team, he could certainly walk the same path as Cliff Lee, taking “enough” money from the Mariners while spurning slightly more lucrative offers to move east. Remember, unlike Lee, and many other free agent pitchers, Felix will already have earned over $80 million by the time he hits free agency.

Even if the Mariners sign him to the aforementioned seven-year, $170 million contract, they’ll still be getting a pitcher in his prime. Hernandez turns 26 around Opening Day, meaning the seven-year contract will cover his age-29 through age-35 seasons. While any long-term pitching contract brings risks, paying for a pitcher’s prime years mitigates some of that risk.

Felix’s Rare Ability

While I’ve soured on WAR for a number of reasons, one big reason is that it understates the value of high-WAR players. That is, players worth seven wins over replacement per season are exceedingly rare. They are worth far, far more than double a 3.5-win player, because 3.5-win players are far more common. To take this further, a team with one 7-win player and one 0-win player is in a far better position than a team with two 3.5-win players. The first team can replace the 0-win player, but the second team will have trouble finding reasonable, and reasonably priced, upgrades over the 3.5-win players.

In the last three seasons Felix easily ranks as a top-five pitcher in the bigs. His 18.5 WAR, in fact, ranks fifth. He has thrown the second-most innings and ranks fourth in ERA and eighth in FIP. The only pitchers who compare to him are Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. That’s some pretty elite company. That actually brings us into the next point.

Get Value Now, Trade Later

If the Mariners do plan to trade Felix, why would they do so now? We’ve already seen that there is simply no way they could get anything approaching equal value right now. They could get a prospect who has the potential to produce seven-win seasons. But prospects bring no guarantees. Chances are they’d get a package with a number of high-end prospects. But chances are they’d be looking at two 3.5-win players, rather than a single seven-win player.

If they can’t get equal value right now, and if they don’t have payroll issues, why trade him? Why not wait until later, when they can still pluck a premium prospect? In the meantime they could still make a run. If they, for instance, signed Prince Fielder this off-season there’s a chance they could make a run for the AL West crown in 2012. Why trade Felix now when that chance is potentially on the horizon?

The Mariners know Felix’s trade value first hand. Look at what they got for Cliff Lee at the 2010 trade deadline. He had just a half year of team control remaining, and they managed to trade him for the No. 13 prospect in the game. At the trade deadline in 2014 they could pull similar haul for Felix. If they traded him the winter prior they could get an even larger haul. Teams, especially rich teams like the Yankees, can afford to pay premiums for rare talents such as Felix.

In Sum

If the Mariners had payroll issues this might be a different story. But they don’t. If the Mariners had a barren farm system they might reconsider. But they don’t. If Felix was heading for free agency after the 2012 season maybe they’d seek to trade him. But he isn’t. If Felix were a solid No. 1/No. 2-type pitcher they might find an attractive package of prospects from another team. But he’s not. All of these factors conspire to keep Felix in Seattle.

The Mariners have a rare commodity on their hands, rarer still because he’s so young in addition to being so good. There is no way they can get anything resembling equal value for him right now. They could get a few gambles, but the chances of them landing even one future seven-win player, never mind multiple, are slim to nil. At the same time, they could likely get a considerable return for Felix in a few years time. Why would they trade him now for what they could probably get in a year or two?

As Yankees fans we dream of the elite. The very best is all that will do. Felix certainly ranks among the very best. We’d all love to see him on the roster for 2012 and beyond. Unfortunately, he is property of a team that has no incentive to deal him right now. Perhaps in the future the Yankees can pry Felix away from the Mariners. But right now, as a 26-year-old with three years remaining of team control, he’s staying in Seattle.

Our Man in Chicago

It’s been a tough couple of months in Boston. The Red Sox went from a virtual playoff lock and World Series contender to missing the playoffs, firing their manager and seeing their long-tenured and well-respected general manager depart for a new challenge with the Chicago Cubs. Change has come to the AL East, change that seemed hard to imagine a year ago. Now that Theo has moved on and no longer runs the Yankees’ biggest and baddest rival, he’s more free than ever to explore a more functional working relationship with long-time nemesis, Brian Cashman. Indeed, one of the more interesting things to watch about the new leadership on the North Side of Chicago will be the extent to which Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer find Brian Cashman to be a go-to trading partner.

Photo credit: Aaron Houston for the New York Times

While there certainly isn’t any type of formal prohibition on trading between fierce rivals, Epstein and Cashman weren’t ever really free to pursue a trading relationship during their tenures atop their respective organizations. Despite the fact that a mutually-beneficial deal could have existed at least in theory, the constraints of the rivalry, pressure from ownership, and glare of the media made it extremely unlikely. Intra-division trades aren’t too frequent. Trades between the biggest rivals in baseball almost never happen. The last time the Sox and the Yankees matched up on a deal was back in 1997 when they swapped Tony Armas and Jim Mecir for Randy Brown and Mike Stanley. Neither Cashman nor Epstein were General Managers yet, and Epstein was just 24 years old.

Despite the fact that they worked for rival organizations, Epstein and Cashman have always seemed to get along. This makes sense, as they share a lot in common. As general managers, they were both in big markets with a lot of money to spend. They had high-profile owners and sometimes messy decision-making apparatuses. They were under harsher media scrutiny than anywhere else, and they operated with the pressure to win every year. Setting aside their professional competitiveness, one has to imagine Epstein could empathize with Cashman when he got overruled on Rafael Soriano, and that Cashman felt similarly towards Epstein as the Sox season spiraled out of control and ownership pushed Terry Francona out the door. They’re not so different, Epstein and Cashman.

They could be eager now to explore a working relationship. One has to imagine they’re at least curious to match wits in a trade negotiation, to experience up close what they’ve observed from afar over the past decade. For now there doesn’t seem to be an obvious fit between the Cubs and the Yankees, unless the Cubs were willing to trade one of their starters now. If the Cubs fall out of contention this summer and look to shed payroll and get prospects in return, could they make Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza available? And would Cashman be ready to deal? It’s an interesting question, and the burgeoning dynamic between the once-forbidden partners will be something to watch over the next few years.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: C.J. Wilson

When the Yankees needed pitching last offseason, they went all out and offered Cliff Lee a six-year contract (with a player option!) worth at least $132M. They still need pitching this offseason, but there’s no one on the open market worthy of that kind of commitment. With CC Sabathia re-signed to an extension, the best available free agent pitcher is C.J. Wilson, a left-hander that would help combat Yankee Stadium‘s cozy right field porch.

Joel Sherman has reported a number of times that the Yankees are not enamored with Wilson, and in fact one club official called the Rangers’ nominal ace a number four starter on a championship-caliber team. Despite that, you know we’re going to hear the two parties connected at some point this winter, it’s just the nature of the beast. On the first day of open free agency, let’s break down Wilson’s qualifications…

The Pros

  • Wilson’s first season in the rotation was solid, but he took major steps forward in 2011. His strikeout rate improved from 7.50 K/9 to 8.30 K/9, his swing-and-miss rate from 6.7% to 8.3%, and his walk rate from 4.10 BB/9 to 2.98 BB/9. That helped drop his xFIP from 4.06 to 3.41.
  • A ground ball pitcher, Wilson has gotten batters to beat the ball into the ground either 49.2% or 49.3% of the time in five of the last six years. The one exception came in 2009, when his ground ball rate was 55.4%. Bonus points for cosistency, says Joe Morgan. All the grounders help Wilson keep the ball in the park; he’s allowed just 0.55 HR/9 with a measly 6.7% HR/FB ratio over the last two seasons, and that’s while pitching in a big-time hitters’ park.
  • After throwing 228.1 IP in 2010 (regular season and playoffs), Wilson beefed that up to 251.1 IP in 2011. He responded well to the workload increase based on his fastball velocity, which jumped from 88-91 last year to 92-94 this year. Wilson throws three fastballs (two-seamer, four-seamer, cutter), a low-80’s slider, a low-80’s changeup, and a mid-70’s curve. They are six legit pitches, he’s used each more than 10% of the time as a starter.
  • Wilson flat out annihilates lefties, even as a starter. Since the start of last season, he’s held same-side hitters to a measly .202/.277/.262 batting line with 97 strikeouts and 29 walks in 369 plate appearances. He’s not too shabby against righties either, holding them to a .231/.314/.350 line since the start of last year. For what it’s worth, he’s also got great career numbers against the Red Sox and Rays.
  • Because Wilson has was a position player in college and a reliever for the vast majority of his first five years in the big leagues, his arm doesn’t have as many miles on it compared to most other 30-year-old starters (he’ll turn 31 in about two weeks).

The Cons

  • Although he’s been healthy these last two years, the early part of Wilson’s career was riddling with injury. He had Tommy John surgery back in 2003, missed the start of 2006 with a sore shoulder, missed basically all of Spring Training in 2008 with a sore elbow, missed the last two months of 2008 due to elbow surgery (bone spurs), and then dealt with blisters in 2009. Those are all arm problems and none of them are fluky, except maybe the blisters.
  • Walks have been and probably will continue to be an issue. This year was the first time he ever posted a sub-3.60 BB/9 in a full Major League season, and he’s just one year removed from a league-leading 93 walks. His rates of 16.5 pitches per inning and 4.0 pitches per batter faced are among the ten highest in baseball over the last two seasons (min. 300 IP), so not exactly Mr. Efficient.
  • There’s no denying that Wilson has been a very effective starter these last two seasons, but he just doesn’t have a track record in that role. Whatever team signs him would be betting that he can repeat that kind of production over that many innings for the next half-decade. That’s not to say he can’t do it, but the question still has to be asked.
  • Wilson is a Type-A free agent and the Rangers will assuredly offer him arbitration, so whatever team signs him will forfeit their first round pick to Texas.

Many of you will point to Wilson’s second straight awful postseason showing as a negative, but I just can’t bring myself to put much stock into October numbers. It’s been 52.1 playoff innings and he’s got a 4.82 ERA with a 5.70 FIP. Andy Pettitte had a 5.68 ERA with a 5.84 FIP in his first 50.1 playoff innings. See what I mean? The poor postseason showing will likely affect Wilson’s price though, but I doubt it’ll be much. I still expect him to get something close to the A.J. Burnett and John Lackey contract, meaning five years and $82.5M.

Fittingly, I do find myself thinking about Wilson the same way I thought about John Lackey two years ago, at least in one sense. The Rangers can afford to keep him and they have a need for him, but we haven’t heard anything about them doing all they can to retain him. That makes me wonder what they know that other teams don’t. Obviously we haven’t seen how the Wilson sweepstakes will play out, but it’s still something I’ll be keeping an eye on. If Texas doesn’t make a major effort to retain him, I’d consider it a red flag.

On the surface, Wilson has everything the Yankees could possibly want in a starter. He’s left-handed, gets a ton of ground balls, misses bats, should be good for 200+ innings year-in and year-out … but I just can’t bring myself to it. The lack of a track record scares me, as does the pre-2011 control problems. All those arm injuries earlier in his career are a concern as well. As I said earlier, we’ve heard that the Yankees view Wilson as more of a mid-rotation guy, and that’s pretty much how I value him. Solid guy to have in the rotation, but not someone I’d bend over backwards to sign like Lee last winter.

The Advantages of the Trade Market

Pipe dream? I hope not. (Ed Zurga/Getty)

As of 12:01am ET this morning, the free agent market is officially open for business. Free agents can now receive and accept offers from all teams, which means we’re going to see tons of (bonus) rumors and (legitimate) signings in the coming weeks. It’s fun stuff.

We always expect the Yankees to be a major player in free agency because they can outspend everyone else, but the open market is not always the best way to go about plugging a hole in your roster. Sometimes the solution just isn’t out there, and other times the solution presented to you isn’t a good fit. That’s where trades come in, which like free agency, has some advantages of its own…

Money Still Talks

The big advantage in free agency, especially for the Yankees, is that they can just throw their money around and let that do the talking. Yeah, you have to give up an asset in a trade (i.e. one or more players), but the Yankees can still use their financial might to absorb salary that most other teams could not. MLBTR projects John Danks to make somewhere between $8-10M next season (just using him as an example), and how many teams can realistically take that on in a trade? It’s probably less than half the league, maybe even less than a third.

The general rule of thumb is the more money you take on a trade, the less you have to give up in terms of players. That doesn’t mean the Yankees can just buy players they want from other teams, but their superior budget can help keep the player cost down in some cases.

More Options

There are a ton of free agents out there, hundreds of them if you start counting the minor league guys, but that doesn’t always mean the open market will offer what you need. It’s no secret the Nationals are looking for a center fielder that can hit near the top of the order this winter, but they’re completely out of luck in free agency. It’s Coco Crisp or bust in that department. The Yankees want another lefty reliever, but that market is close to barren.

The trade market can offer viable alternatives in many cases. Sometimes it’s a non-contender looking to beef up their prospect pool, other times it’s a contender dealing from a position of depth to shore up another hole. It’s just another pool of players you can mine for talent.

Peak Years

This is the biggest advantage the trade market has over free agency in my book. Because players need at least six years of service time to qualify for free agency, most of them are over 30 by the time they hit the open market. Yeah, there is the occasional Alex Rodriguez or CC Sabathia or Jose Reyes or Prince Fielder, but those guys are the exception and not the rule. If you’re looking to buy peak performance years, those age 26-30 seasons, you’ll have a very tough time finding them on the free agent market. You might have to pay a little extra for them in a trade, but it’s usually worth it.

* * *

The Yankees want need pitching this offseason, but there’s not much available in free agency aside from Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson, and potentially Yu Darvish. The trade market may or may not offer some attractive alternatives, but if it does, the Yankees have the big budget and cache of upper level prospects (David Phelps, Adam Warren, Austin Romine, etc.) to get a deal done.

After ’12, Yanks’ radio rights could be up for grabs

When the Yankees announced a one-year renewal of their radio deal with WCBS AM last week, it seemed clear that something was going on. The Yanks wouldn’t just renew their preexisting — and lucrative — contract for one year without a plan, but at first, the story hadn’t emerged. And then The Post got their hands on it.

In a small and easy-to-overlook item in Saturday’s paper, media reporter Phil Mushnick wrote of a brewing radio war between the Yankees and the Mets. As a few readers had speculated, the Mets’ deal with WFAN expires after the 2012 season, and the Yanks could be looking to find a more high-profile radio partner willing to pony up the big bucks. It helps that WCBS and WFAN are owned by the same company, and the end of the Mets’ contract gives the Yanks leverage to demand preferential treatment.

Mushnick offered up a few more tidbits about the ongoing radio machinations. ESPN Radio appears to be quite interested in landing the Yanks in an attempt to boost their popularity as a sports talk outlet, but their current home on 1050 AM offers up a weak signal. To placate the Yanks, they are looking for a 24-hour clear-signal station on either AM or FM. One possible target could be 101.9 FM, a station that recently flipped from rock to news with a disastrous impact on its ratings. Its owner is searching for something to anchor the network.

For Yankee fans outside of New York City, the perfect answer would likely be WFAN if the Yanks jump ship. Like WCBS, it is a clear-channel AM station with a signal that reaches from Boston to Washington if listening conditions are just right. WEPN, on the other hand, barely reaches Albany. In the immediate area, 101.9 has a strong signal, but as an FM station, its overall reach is limited. (For what it’s worth, local stations that rebroadcast games as part of the Yankees Radio Network will not be impacted by the flagship deal.)

With all of these radio happenings, though, the question of who will be behind the mics remains. John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman will be coming back for at least 2012, but the sports media world has featured some on-again, off-again rumblings of a new radio team. A new flagship may want to find a younger team or the Yanks may elect to maintain or replace Sterling and Waldman. Despite his roll as the long-time Voice of the Yankees, John Sterling is a very divisive person among Yankee fans. His home run calls may get laughs, but it’s tough to tell which game he’s watching when he broadcasts. As one columnist once wrote, the Yanks play two games — the one on the field and the one John Sterling calls.

And so like all good or bad things, 2012 could be the end of a Yankee radio era. Waldman, for the trail she has blazed for female radio personas, won’t draw too many tears if she is jettisoned. I personally won’t miss John Sterling. His repetitiveness and willingness to play fast and loose with the game on the field make for an exhausting broadcast. But I know a few people who find this personality far more charming than a rote play-by-play guy. So as the Hot Stove League begins to heat up with free agency looming, on this night in November, I leave you with a poll. What would you do with John Sterling?


Phelps has best start of winter in AzFL

None of the seven Yankees farmhands playing in the Arizona Fall League were selected to participate in the Rising Stars Showcase, essentially the league’s all-star game (rosters). The game will be broadcast live on MLB Network and MLB.com this coming Saturday at 8pm ET.

Also, Josh Norris spoke to David Adams’ agent, who said the second baseman “feels good and is preparing for a long and productive year next season.” Adams has played just a handful of games since breaking his ankle sliding into second base way back in May 2010.

And finally, the Short Season Staten Island Yankees were named the Short Season Team of the Year, so congrats to them. They finished with the best record in the circuit and won the league title.

AzFL Phoenix (3-1 loss to Mesa) Monday’s game
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B:1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 K – hitting .405/.405/.649 through nine games
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 3, 1 2B, 1 BB
Corban Joseph, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 2B, 1 K
David Phelps, RHP: 5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 6-5 GB/FB, 1 E (pickoff) – 41 of 67 pitches were strikes (61.2%) … easily his best start out here so far … they cap the starters at five innings, but he definitely could have gone longer
Dan Burawa, RHP: 1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 2-1 GB/FB – 13 of 20 pitches were strikes … really having a rough go of it out here, that’s seven walks and six strikeouts in 11 IP
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB – ten pitches, eight strikes

AzFL Phoenix (10-7 loss to Salt River) Tuesday’s game
Rob Segedin, DH: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 K
Chase Whitley, RHP: 0.1 IP, zeroes, 1-0 GB/FB – threw just one pitch

AzFL Phoenix (11-8 win over Mesa) Wednesday’s game
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 SB, 1 CS
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 CS
Corban Joseph, DH: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB – second time he’s DH’d in the last week, I wonder if he’s banged up

Open Thread: Army-Rutgers

In case you haven’t heard, Yankee Stadium will be hosting its third college football game since opening next weekend, when Army takes on Rutgers next Saturday (the 12th). Thanks to our friends at TiqIQ, we can help get you into the game at a 30% discount. Just click the image above or this link. I’m sure we’ve got some Scarlet Knights out there in our readership, so get out there and support your team while giving the Yankees some more of your hard-earned cash. Seriously though, I heard the previous two football games were absolutely amazing.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the night. The 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series will resume tomorrow, so you’re baseball-less tonight. The Devils are the only local hockey team in action, but I’m sure you can find another way to spend the evening. You all know how this works, so have at it.

Discussion Question: Keeping it semi-realistic, what is your dream rotation for 2012?