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Locking up Hernandez solidifies Mariners as a contender

The Mariners have been one of this Hot Stove season's most compelling teams, but whatever you make of their acquisitions of Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley, and Casey Kotchman, or their trading of Brandon Morrow, there's no denying that their most important move was the one finalized Thursday night: a five-year deal that buys out staff ace Felix Hernandez's two remaining arbitration years and his first three free agent seasons. The total value of the deal is $78 million, which works out to a $15.6 million annual average, a more-than-fair price for a heralded young pitcher who deservedly finished second in the AL Cy Young award voting this past season. As a legitimate ace who won't turn 24 until April, Hernandez is far and away the Mariners' most valuable commodity, and they now have him locked up for the first half of the new decade for less than the Red Sox will pay 31-year-old John Lackey over the same period.

It's a great deal for Hernandez as well. With general manager Jack Zduriencik's continued emphasis on defense in the already pitcher-friendly Safeco Park, Hernandez will be working in an ideal pitching environment. The improved Seattle defense already played a part in Hernandez's break-out 2009 season as he led the league in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (7.5), and his opponents hit just .280 on balls in play after posting a .322 BABIP against him over the previous three seasons. Balls in play off Hernandez are more likely to come on the ground than in the air, so heading into 2010, the defensive upgrade at first base from Russell Branyan to Kotchman and a full season of deadline acquisition Jack Wilson at shortstop (assuming he can stay healthy), could help him even more. He won't get much run support in the near future, but it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Hernandez's next five years in Seattle yield a pair of Cy Young awards and set him up for an obscene payday when his contract expires at the end of his age-28 season. I'd go as far as to say that the only thing that could keep Felix Hernandez from becoming the highest paid pitcher in the game's history come 2015 would be arm trouble. If he stays healthy, it's difficult to imagine Hernandez being anything less than one of the game's elite starters over the next five years.

Save for brief a bit of elbow tightness in mid-2007 and fluky sprained ankle in 2008, Hernandez has shown no signs of fragility in his first five major league seasons, but any long-term pitching contract carries a significant injury risk, no matter what the pitcher's previous medical history might be. Pitching is an extremely unnatural act that places enormous stress and strain on two major joints filled with delicate ligaments, muscles, and connective tissues. Even the healthiest pitcher's arm can go pop at any time. Hernandez has proven to be durable thus far, but that has resulted in a lot of innings pitched at a very young age. Because young men's bodies are still completing the growing and maturing process in their early twenties, any pitcher under 25 is automatically an elevated injury risk. That's why an increasing number of teams have come to enforce pitch and innings limits on their young starters.

Hernandez was so good so young that he made his major league debut at 19 and has already thrown 905 major league innings at age 23, 820 2/3 of them over the last four seasons. The M's did well to keep Hernandez below 200 innings pitched in his first two full major league seasons, and he topped out at 200 2/3 innings in his third season, but his breakout 2009 season saw him throw 238 2/3 innings, which is a ton for a 23 year old. The M's have also been smart about Hernandez's pitch counts, as he's thrown 120 or more pitches in a major league game just once, that coming in his penultimate start of 2009, though, again, his pitches per start have increased annually over the last three seasons, reaching 107 in 2009.

That method of gradual increase is smart, but it might be ahead of schedule given Hernandez is still shy of his 24th birthday. Consider the early years of the two biggest workhorses in baseball today, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay. Sabathia threw 200 innings just once before the age of 26, has averaged 260 innings a year over the last three years, and has surpassed 106 pitches per start in a season just once in his nine-year career. Halladay, who has averaged 233 innings a season over the last four years (an average of 5 2/3 fewer innings than Hernandez threw in 2009), never threw as many as 150 innings before the age of 25 and has never thrown more than 107 pitches per start in a season.

Of course, that sort of anecdotal approach can cut both ways. Pessimists can point to Mark Prior or Jeremy Bonderman, optimists can point to Javier Vazquez or Mark Buehrle. I always go back to something Keith Woolner, the Baseball Prospectus statistician who invented VORP and now works for the Cleveland Indians, told me when once: Part of what distinguishes the true greats is their durability. Tom Seaver threw 251 innings as a 22-year-old rookie and never looked back. Roger Clemens threw 535 2/3 innings between his age-23 and -24 seasons without any lingering effect. Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen, on the other hand, were unable to survive similar work in their early 20s despite being similarly effective in those early seasons. The trouble is that a team never knows whether or not it has a Seaver or a Saberhagen, and there are far more of the latter than the former. That's why teams have to be careful with their young pitchers. Hernandez, who is a solid 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, could well prove to be a Seaver (he has more wins and strikeouts at 23 than Seaver had after his age-24 season), but the only way to find out is to risk a career-altering arm injury, something the Mariners' $78 million investment won't allow. Which is to say that what has changed about pitching workloads has more to do with money than anything else.

Still, Hernandez would have to become Mark Prior for his new deal not to be a good one for the Mariners, and the M's aren't about to be as abusive of Felix as Dusty Baker and the Cubs were of Prior in 2003, when the 22-year-old averaged 113 pitches per start. Perhaps best of all for the Mariners, they got the deal done before any of Tim Lincecum's arbitration figures were announced, as the 25-year-old two-time Cy Young award winner's first round of arbitration could have set Hernandez's market price well above the $15.6 million annual average of his new deal. As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on just how much Jack Zduriencik has improved the Mariners for 2010 (what looks like his largest upgrade, lefty ace Cliff Lee, is merely replacing the 216 innings of 2.71 ERA the M's got from Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard in 2009), but by locking up Hernandez at a reasonable price for the next five years, he's laid the cornerstone for a legitimate contender in the coming decade.

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