Felix Hernandez is close to signing a mammoth seven-year, $175M contract with the Mariners according to Bob Nightengale. The deal rips up the final two years of his previous contract and takes effect immediately, so it’s basically a five-year extension that will keep him in Seattle through 2019. The Yankees and pretty much every other team have tried to trade for Felix at some point recently, but GM Jack Zduriencik steadfastly refused to discuss him. Don’t worry, I’m sure the Yankees will pay through the nose for whatever is left of his career in seven years.
Got seven questions for you this week, so consider this a jumbo-sized edition of the mailbag. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us questions and whatnot.
Countless people asked some variation of: Can/should the Yankees sign Melky Cabrera to a cheap one-year deal after the season following his suspension?
Sure, it’s worth exploring. Based on my last few days at MLBTR, the fans of the other 29 teams are wondering the same thing as well. I suppose the Yankees may have a leg up considering their history with Cabrera, plus the fact that his good buddy Robinson Cano plays here. Either way, I’m sure the club can make a competitive offer if they’re so inclined.
The real question is what kind of hitter do you expect him to be going forward? I don’t buy that testosterone alone turned him into an MVP caliber hitter, but I also don’t think this season’s performance — .346/.390/.516 (146 wRC+) — is a reasonable expectation going forward simply because I don’t believe anyone is a true talent .346 hitter. Not Melky, not Mike Trout, not Miguel Cabrera, not Derek Jeter. No one. If he’s more of a .310 hitter doing forward, that’s still really awesome and shouldn’t be considered a knock. If they can get him for one-year at like, $5-8M to shore up the outfield next season, sure that’s something they should seriously consider. Whether or not it’s actually realistic is another matter entirely.
Daniel asks: The Cubs are offering to turn Alfonso Soriano into a $3M/year player. Any interest in him as a RF solution next season?
This is an unequivocal no for me. Soriano is having a real nice .263/.320/.448 (112 wRC+) year with the bat, but he’s a 36-year-old one-dimensional player. If he’s not hitting homers, he has zero value. Soriano doesn’t walk, doesn’t hit for average, doesn’t steal bases anymore, and doesn’t play much defense either. He’s under contract through 2014 so you’re talking about a $6M commitment for a player that is basically a bad HR/FB% slump away from a forced retirement. Soriano would be like, my Plan F for right field next season.
Brett asks: Let’s say the Yankees don’t re-sign Nick Swisher this offseason and then think like you and let Cano walk after 2013. With Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson (Yankees sign him after Cano leaves) all two years older and currently not even performing that well, as well as a black hole offensively at catcher, do you really think the Yankees lineup will be good enough?
Well that’s the thing, why are we assuming catcher is a black hole? If they let Cano and Swisher walk, the Yankees will have the opportunity to turn over the second base, right field, catcher, and DH positions in the next two offseason. If you think A-Rod is resigned to being a DH down the line, then you can bring in a new body for third base. That four of the nine lineup spots they have to work with. Plenty of room to add some offensive punch.
Bill asks: So with Swisher all but assuredly leaving next year, what do you think the chances are he ends up in Boston? The team needs some pop in right field and they need a good clubhouse guy, with everything that is going on in Boston right now. Think this is a possibility?
Absolutely. If for whatever reason the Yankees had declined his option last offseason, I think the Red Sox would have been the first team to call Swisher’s agent. Pretty much every contending team in need of a bat — the Rangers, Dodgers, Braves, Tigers, Giants, Reds, etc. — figures to have some interest because he’s versatile (corner outfield or first base) and a switch-hitter. Swisher could go 0-for-October and he’ll still have plenty of suitors on the free agent market after the winter.
Sal asks: Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where teams start structuring contracts so that players are paid appropriately in their peak years but the contract dollars are “tapered” in the end years so that they don’t over pay for a players decline?
No, definitely not. I’m sure the club would love it, but I highly doubt the players and agents would. I think it’s pretty normal to want to make more money the older you get, which is why most multi-year contracts include some kind of year-to-year raise. Another part of this is that most GMs won’t be around to see the end of the multi-year contracts they hand out, specifically the big six and seven-year ones. What do I care if I saddle the next GM with a back contract when I could win right now and enhance my reputation? It’s a good idea, but I don’t think the players and agents would go for it.
Tucker asks: This is a bit of a hypothetical, but would the Yankees even have the pieces to acquire Felix Hernandez if he were made available? Could the Rangers swoop in and nab him instead?
No, I don’t believe the Yankees have the pieces to acquire any kind of high-end talent like that right now. Not unless they’re willing to dangle Cano and the other club really values him despite being a year away from free agency. The lack of impact, near-MLB ready prospect really hurts them here.
The Rangers could certainly jump in and make a great offer for Felix if they wanted — if you’re Seattle, don’t you have to listen if Texas offers Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt? I have to think that would at least get their attention. The Yankees can’t put together any kind of offer like that right now, so they’re handcuffed on the trade market. As much as I’d love to see him in pinstripes, there’s just no realistic trade scenario for Justin Upton at the moment.
Right now, with both CC Sabathia and Pettitte on the shelf, yes Freddy would definitely be in postseason rotation. I’d probably have him start Game Two behind Hiroki Kuroda in that scenario, which is … yikes. If Sabathia and Pettitte come back, I would use Freddy as the fourth starter and stick Phil Hughes in the bullpen for October. I don’t see how they could trust Nova in the postseason given his current performance, but he does have about six weeks to figure things out.
Assuming David Phelps is headed back to the bullpen at some point, I’d rank the potential playoff starters are Sabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, Garcia, Hughes, Nova. Just remove players and bump everyone else up as needed due to injury. I don’t think it’s out of the question that Phelps pitches his way ahead of Nova in the pecking order, but I wouldn’t count on it. I think he’ll run out of innings before that happens.
The Yankees have won three straight over the Rangers and seven of their last eight overall, restoring some order to the universe after playing sub-.500 ball for about three weeks. They’re on the verge of sweeping Texas in a four-game series, something that was honestly unthinkable when the week began. The Yankees are playing so well and with the quick turn-around for the afternoon game today, there’s no use for a focused post this morning. Instead, here is a collection of some random thoughts. Feel free to expand or add to the discussion in the comments…
1. I think that we, as a fanbase, don’t give Freddy Garcia enough credit. He had that brutal April and it seems to have lingered in everyone’s minds, but he’s been rock solid ever since regardless of role (starter or reliever). Part of the problem is that he doesn’t fit the profile of the type of pitcher that usually succeeds in the AL East. He’s not a hard-thrower and he doesn’t miss bats, but he generates lots of weak contact and simply outsmarts hitters. When I saw the weather prior to the game last night, my thought was that the Yankees were in pretty good shape because Garcia’s a veteran starter who has pitched through everything. A little rain wouldn’t bother him. Freddy really does deserve a lot of credit for stepping up once Andy Pettitte went down.
2. He isn’t going to continue hitting this well through the end of the season and into the playoffs, but don’t the Yankees have to find a way to keep Eric Chavez in the lineup once Alex Rodriguez comes off the DL? They could get him three or four starts a week at third base and/or DH, but to do so they would have to take some playing time away from Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez. I suppose they could platoon those two and use Ichiro in left for the fly ball pitchers (Phil Hughes and Garcia) while Ibanez gets the call for the ground-ballers (CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova). Either way, Chavez has been far too productive to turn him back into a once-a-week type player. Someone’s going to lose at-bats when A-Rod comes back and it shouldn’t be him.
3. Isn’t this Melky Cabrera stuff just sad? You know I’m not the biggest Melky fan in the world, but it’s sad because he was so close to a life-changing contract. We have no idea how much the added testosterone helped his performance, but the story about him getting into shape and taking his career seriously after getting released by the Braves seemed completely plausible. Melky always had some skills, he makes lots of contact and he has a pretty good idea of the strike zone, so it’s not completely unexpected that he turned into a BABIP machine during his peak years. Now his free agent value is destroyed — I was thinking something along the lines of six years and $80-90M this offseason, but he might have to settle for a one-year, prove yourself contract now. He was staring at money that would put his great great great grandkids through college, now he has to do it all over again to land that kind of payday. Rough.
4. On the heels of his perfect game yesterday — which was just absolutely brilliant, I can’t tell you how filthy he was if you didn’t see it — would you take Felix Hernandez over any other pitcher if you had one game to win? I’m pretty sure I would. The top three names that immediately jumped to mind for me were Felix, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw, but I’d rather have Hernandez over the other two. MLB Network joked (or maybe it wasn’t a joke) yesterday that the ninth inning of the perfect game were the three biggest outs of his career, and that kinda bummed me out. Felix has never pitched in the postseason and only once have the Mariners finished above third place during his career, but he just seems to give off that vibe that he would be untouchable on the big stage. Maybe I’m completely off the mark here, but he always seems to perform his best when facing top teams like the Yankees or Red Sox or Rangers or the Rays yesterday.
5. Is this not the most likable Yankees team in quite some time? At least since the 2009 squad, and I think you might even be able to go back farther than that. The mid-aughts teams were just awful in that regard, full of grumpy and unlikeable players that came off as far too corporate (Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown stand out as notable examples). This team has likeable players all over the place, from Chavez to Sabathia to Kuroda to Curtis Granderson to Robinson Cano to many others. They’re all just very easy to root for and it makes the whole baseball fan experience that much better. The Yankees placed a renewed emphasis on makeup and character a few years ago, and I think this is a byproduct.
In the aftermath of yet another strong Jeff Niemann performance against the Yankees — whose seven-inning, one-run outing last night improved his career ERA against New York to 2.75 over six starts — I couldn’t help but wonder what Niemann’s overall numbers against the Bombers looked like in relation to other starters that have consistently had success when facing the team.
Going back to the beginning of 2009, here are the top 10 starters against the Yankees by lowest ERA (minimum three starts), courtesy of David Pinto’s wonderful day-by-day database:
Most of the names on this list would probably align with Yankee fans’ perceptions of pitchers the team typically struggles against — and frankly I was shocked that King Felix’s name didn’t top the list. His aberrant start last September slightly skewed his numbers, but prior to that completely out-of-character dud, no pitcher in baseball had had more success against the Yankees. Felix had thrown 40 innings of six-run ball (1.35 ERA) against the Yankees, including 24 innings of one-run ball (0.38 ERA!) at Yankee Stadium dating back to the beginning of 2010, and not having been saddled with a loss against the Bombers since May 3, 2008.
However, there are a couple of eye-openers — I can’t say I expected Carl Pavano to make the top 10, although I suppose that makes some sense given his unique brand of right-handed slop. And the other is Niemann, who, believe it or not, has the third-lowest ERA among all starters against the Yankees since the beginning of 2009, his first full season in the bigs. Now, I don’t mean to knock on Niemann, who clearly has the Yankees’ number, but it does seem a bit odd that a hurler who’s been a decidedly average — if not below-average — right-hander during his career (102 ERA-; 105 FIP-) would be so successful against the best offensive team in baseball during that timeframe.
For the most part, aside from Niemann and Pavano, almost everyone else in that group makes sense — hard-throwing, high-strikeout right-handers, but I was also curious to see whether there were any other similarities among this group that might uncover why they’ve routinely stymied the Bombers’ bats. Courtesy of Brooks’ Pitcher Cards, here’s what each pitcher in the top 10 throws and how hard they throw it:
Here’s where things get interesting. Four of the top five pitchers in this study throw a sinker more than 30% of the time, and the fifth — Niemann — just misses that cutoff, at 29% of the time. Additionally, both Pavano and Jake Arrieta are also sinker-heavy, which means that seven of the top 10 throw a sinker more than 25% of the time.
Of course, it’d be easy to say, “well maybe the Yankees just stink against sinkers,” but that’s not even remotely true, as they have the second-best wSI/C in baseball since 2009. Still, there’s something about this variety of sinkerballer — several of whom also prominently feature a curve (Hernandez, Niemann, Haren and Arrieta each go to the hook more than 10% of the time) — that seem to have the Yankees’ goose cooked.
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.
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.
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.