The Seattle Mariners have insisted they are not trading Felix Hernandez, who has two years remaining on his contract at $40.5 million. It's a policy they need to rethink for two reasons: his obvious blockbuster value as a young ace available to a team for a minimum of three pennant races, and the extreme risks and costs of keeping him beyond this deal.
Let's be clear: Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik has given no indications in public or private that he would even consider trading Hernandez. Asked if Zduriencik might budge on making Hernandez available, one GM replied, "Not sure. He's consistently said no. But he did on [Michael] Pineda, too."
Trading an ace and franchise icon like Hernandez in midseason is messy stuff. Hernandez has a limited no-trade clause (he can block a deal to 10 teams), he's extremely popular among an increasingly disillusioned fan base and you run the risk of fracturing the club/player relationship if you still have the player after weeks of trade rumors. The safe thing to do is defer a decision on Hernandez until after next season, when the Mariners will either have to sign him to an extension or let him enter his walk season in 2014 at age 28.
The idea of trading Hernandez should be considered only because the Mariners are so bad -- they are on track to post the franchise's worst batting average for a third straight year -- that they are more than two years behind loaded division rivals Texas and Los Angeles. In other words, they can't close the talent gap during the remainder of Hernandez's contract.
The All-Star Game Tuesday stands as one indication why Seattle is in this predicament. There you will find Asdrubal Cabrera, Adam Jones, Bryan LaHair and R.A. Dickey, all former Mariners. In fact, in 2006, the Mariners had in their system Cabrera, Jones, LaHair, Pineda, Jesus Guzman, Michael Morse, Shin-Soo Choo, Scott Achison, Travis Blackley, Doug Fister, Mark Lowe, Brandon Morrow, Eric O'Flaherty and Chris Tillman. All are gone with very little to show for their departures.
Zduriencik has tried to restock the system with the trades of Cliff Lee to the Rangers in 2010 and Pineda to the Yankees last January and the selections of pitchers Danny Hultzen, Tijuan Walker and James Paxton in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. The Mariners' blueprint goes like this: bring in the fences at Safeco Field next season to squeeze more offense out of this team and imagine a 2014 rotation with Hernandez, Hultzen, Walker and Paxton. Sounds good, but counting on pitching prospects to be major league stars is risky. Hultzen, 22, has a 5.25 ERA in three Triple A starts, Walker, 19, is walking 4.2 batters per nine innings in Double A, and Paxton is walking 5.7 per nine in Double A at age 23.
Oddly enough, Hernandez himself represents a risk for any long-term Seattle planning. If the Mariners want to extend him, they will have to give him more money than has ever been guaranteed a pitcher -- breaking the record of $161 million over seven years the Yankees gave to CC Sabathia after the 2008 season. (Sabathia was 28 years old then with a 3.66 ERA in 254 starts; Hernandez is at 3.24 in 222 starts.)
Would you pay Hernandez $170 million until he's 35 years old? Before you answer, here's something to think about: Hernandez on Tuesday passed 1,500 career innings. He is only the 15th pitcher in the expansion era (since 1961) to throw 1,500 major league innings by his age 26 season. How did the other 14 pitchers age? Not well.
The 14 previous pitchers who logged 1,500 innings by age 26 averaged only 42 career wins after age 30. The group does include three Hall of Famers, though only Bert Blyleven had staying power as a starting pitcher; Dennis Eckersley converted to the bullpen at age 32 and Catfish Hunter was only 40-39 with a 4.07 ERA after age 30.
Five of the 14 pitchers didn't win even 10 games after 30: Denny McLain, Dean Chance, Sam McDowell, Joe Coleman and Larry Dierker. Five others faded to relative mediocrity in their 30s: Ken Holtzman, Rick Wise, Vida Blue, Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden. And one, Frank Tanana, reinvented himself as a junkball pitcher to stick around long enough to go 120-121 in his 30s.
Knock yourself out all you want with ancient outliers such as Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Bob Feller, but in the modern game few pitchers survive heavy workloads in their early 20s to be top starters in their 30s. By not trading Hernandez with the idea of extending him, the Mariners inherit the bet of almost $200 million that he is going to be the exception.
It really comes down to this: Hernandez's peak value -- given his age, workload and contract -- is occurring right now in a 2 1/2-year window in which the Mariners cannot reasonably be expected to contend for a championship. Given that reality, why would he be untouchable?
Justin Verlander of Detroit is the best pitcher in the AL this year and deserves to start the All-Star Game. Not only is the honor deserved, it stamps Verlander as one of the iconic pitchers of his generation. His first All-Star start would complete an unprecedented collection of pitching honors in baseball history: Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award, MVP Award, no-hitter (two, in fact), World Series appearance and All-Star start. Only a perfect game and a World Series championship would be missing from the Ultimate Pitcher's Bucket List. Not bad for a guy who is 29 years old.
In fact, Verlander has been so good for so long -- he won ROY in 2006, has won third-thirds of his decisions and has an ERA barely above 3.00 -- that it got me to thinking if his seven-year run ranks among the best pitching peaks in the modern game.
Not even close.
I decided to look at the best peaks in the expansion era (since 1961) of a similar duration to Verlander's run (215 starts). Sandy Koufax long has been considered as having the gold standard of peaks. But if you allow for how the modern bullpen and five-man rotation have changed starting pitching from Koufax's days, he has some company.
Below you can find the best expansion era pitching peaks of about 200-plus games with at least one Cy Young Award. I broke them into three categories: The Elite (clearly the four best -- all with a .700 winning percentage, ERA+ greater than 150 and more than four times as many strikeouts as walks), The Next Level (a notch below The Elite) and The Active.
Notice that of the 12 peaks listed, nine of them began between ages 23 and 25. On the surprising side, Halladay and Santana came out even better than I thought, Felix Hernandez didn't measure up to Verlander and Sabathia, the peaks of Martinez, Maddux, Johnson and Clemens overlapped in 1997-98, and Clemens managed to show up with two peaks. Clemens actually had a better winning percentage and a higher strikeout rate from ages 34-42 than he did in his 20s. Hey, somebody should investigate how . . . oh, never mind.
The Marlins made a necessary move in picking up Carlos Lee, a legit run producer even though he's no longer a home run threat. The franchise bet its future on turning the honeymoon season of a new ballpark into creating true baseball fans (paying customer variety) in South Florida. A poor season, with no pennant race, threatens the entire business plan.
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But here's where Lee doesn't help: Miami seriously lacks lefthanded pop. Among all NL teams at the time of the trade, the Marlins' lefthanded hitters were tied for last in home runs (15) and ranked next-to-last in batting average (.239), OBP (.303) and slugging (.349). The balky knee of Logan Morrison, their best lefthanded bat, continues to be troublesome.
Miami went all-in this year, bumping its payroll from $58 million to $102 million. The attendance target of 2.6 million looks like it was too optimistic by about 300,000. This month is crucial for the franchise. Lee is not likely to be the club's last acquisition.