ESPN is reporting that Felix Hernandez has signed a one-year, $3.8 million contract with the Mariners for the 2009 season, avoiding salary arbitration and guaranteeing that the right-hander will be significantly underpaid for yet another year. In the quirky world of Major League Baseball contracts, the only good news is that Felix won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season, meaning we’ll still see him in an M’s uniform for three more seasons (barring trade or release).
So why is this such bad news, you ask? Well, when you’re Felix Hernandez (or, more importantly, Felix Hernandez’s agent), you’re pursuing a long-term contract at this point, something that will carry you beyond your initial year of free agency–2011, in this case. A number of teams have signed their young stars to long-term deals recently: the Indians with Grady Sizemore, the Rockies with Troy Tulowitzki, the Rays with Evan Longoria, and the list goes on. This process is basically a win-win for both parties. The player is happy because he has financial security, a feeling of stability, and the knowledge that he is being properly compensated for his work. The team is happy because they’ve locked up their superstar for a number of years at a fairly reasonable price (compared to what he would be worth as a free agent on the open market). The early negotiations also make the player more willing to negotiate a new deal in the future, meaning you’ve opened the door to keeping this player for as long you want at a lower value than he is truly worth.
Of course, the exact opposite becomes true when you start forcing the player into small-market one-year deals, which is what the Mariners are doing with Felix. Because he isn’t yet eligible for free agency, but is eligible for arbitration, Felix and his agent enter the offseason knowing that they will have to sign a contract with Seattle. In a perfect world, they’re attempting to work out a long-term deal that would guarantee that security and stability alluded to before. In the world of the Mariners, who have generally been unwilling to compensate in-house players (and yet they’ll dish out whatever it takes to high-priced free agents), a long-term deal at this point isn’t a solution and–completely ignoring the well-being of the player–they continue to underpay an increasingly grumpy superstar.
This is the main reason why the Mariners are such a poorly-run organization. They’ve created this division with a number of their superstars over the years: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Freddy Garcia, just to name a few. In an era in which players dominate the game, the Mariners have refused to work with the divas of the game and instead, end up paying guys like Jarrod Washburn an obscene amount of money because they can’t hang on to the players they’ve developed. It’s a horrible business strategy, and I honestly believe the Mariners have no idea that they’re doing it. They view their players as commodoties, rather than actual human beings with feelings. If Felix Hernandez spend the next three years earning $3.8 million on one-year deals, do you honestly see him wanting to stay and play for a team that severely undervalues his abilities? I can’t, and I wouldn’t blame the guy for leaving.