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M’s take the plunge

If the Mariners were going to spend lavishly on somebody, it might as well be the face of the franchise, Felix Hernandez. (Associated Press)
If the Mariners were going to spend lavishly on somebody, it might as well be the face of the franchise, Felix Hernandez. (Associated Press)

We can only hope they’ll keep spending

Spotting a toddler who

wobbles toward the edge of

a deck with a one-foot drop-off,  the urge is strong to run to the rescue. But when will he learn about edges and gravity and the fact that it will hurt only for a little while?

So it is with the Mariners. They need to learn about risk in gentle ways. Which is why the pending mega-deal with Felix Hernandez has a utility in Seattle beyond any sabermetric measurement about his predictive decline to age 33.

The Mariners ownership needs to learn how to play big-boy baseball, which includes spending money extravagantly beyond what appears to be the frontiers of common sense. And $175 million over seven years for a player who does his primary job about 33 days a year, is out there.

But if they didn’t go at or above market for Hernandez, their guy, for whom would they?  Josh Hamilton?

When I heard this winter that the Mariners were throwing serious cash at a physically worn and emotionally fragile recovering addict who will be 32 in May, I could not get out of my head the line from Otter in “Animal House”:

“This situation calls for a really futile and stupid gesture on somebody’s part.” Bluto: “We’re just the guys to do it.”

The Mariners were said to have offered a guaranteed $100 million over four years, with a couple of $25 million options. The Angels outbid the Mariners for Hamilton by offering a guaranteed five years at $125 million.

Maybe good for the Animals, er, Angels. Certainly better for the Mariners.

Despite the fact that Hamilton will probably hit 12 home runs in a single game against the Mariners this spring, he will be used up, sadly, before he gets close to the end of his contract. He was popping bolts and stripping gears with the Rangers at the end of last season. The hard miles of his old lifestyle will do him dirty with regard to the fine edge elite athletes must maintain at the highest level.

Instead, the Mariners propose to spend almost the same money for a healthy 26-year-old they’ve known for nine years who actually likes playing baseball in Seattle for the Mariners.  That is nearly as rare as a kiss from Lennay Kekua.

The Mariners are in the awkward position of having one really good player on a major league roster populated otherwise mostly by, well, guys. They have a fan base that is abandoning them by the cargo-ship load, locked in a geographical spot to which good players with choices won’t come, stuck in a division with two serious franchises and an annoyingly smart one, and burdened by an ownership that is generally regarded by most baseball insiders as among the worst in the game.

Besides all that, they just got done paying $18 million annually for a singles hitter, and were scheduled to pay $19.2 million to Hernandez anyway for 2013. So is the leap to $25 million really that outlandish?

As one of the top five pitchers in the American League, Hernandez is a symbol. If his pending free agency forced a trade, it would represent the bleakest of many episodes of futility when it comes to player personnel. If he stays … well, it says they have a chance. Hernandez is like the beautiful starlet who marries the homely guy. We know now it’s mostly for the money, but jeez, maybe there’s something more.

The national media chorus has been consistent, saying that Hernandez is wasting his talent with the Mariners, and the club is missing a chance to get well faster by not trading him for multiple premium prospects. I even bought into that line of thinking, simply because I believed the Mariners ownership would not do what it proposing to do with Hernandez.

But as the franchise approaches its 2015 opt-out provision in the 10-year deal with its TV partner, Root Sports, the regional sports network, the owners must feel emboldened by the prospects of much greater revenues, locally as well as nationally, without having to do much more than sit there. And if they did even a little something, well, who knows? A .500 season, maybe.

But let’s not get carried away. A club doesn’t finish last in seven of the past nine seasons without a carefully constructed monolith of inertia. It is difficult to break old habits, as in, raising ticket prices without warning to fans whose departures had already set a Safeco Field record low in attendance.

So it is premature to say the pending deal for Hernandez represents a permanent turning on of the light above the operators of this franchise, in that they are finally aware they are entertainment purveyors in a market full of choices that perhaps is about to get a lot busier.

But as they toddle off the deck, cry for a moment, then realize that wasn’t so bad, it is possible to suggest they are at least thinking about playing some big-boy ball.

Art Thiel writes for