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Hernandez closing in on historic contract

Felix Hernandez close to $175 million contract. (Associated Press)
Felix Hernandez close to $175 million contract. (Associated Press)
Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Felix Hernandez looks poised to stick with the Mariners for the bulk of his career with word he is close to a seven-year, $175 million deal with Seattle.

The Mariners said Thursday they had no news to release regarding a deal being finalized, but a source confirmed talks have entered final stages and did not dispute the figures being circulated. Details of the deal were first reported Thursday by USA Today, setting off a celebration and collective sigh of relief from Mariners fans long used to seeing top players leave the team.

But the deal, which effectively replaces the final two years of Hernandez’s current contract and adds five more seasons, is not without risk. It would be the wealthiest given to a pitcher in baseball history, the ninth-largest contract to date and would see Hernandez, 26, earn more than a quarter of team payroll by himself in 2013.

The Mariners were reported to be close to significantly adding to that payroll after ending Thursday at just over $78 million committed to their roster. Besides the Hernandez deal, which could add close to $5 million in salary based on the difference between his new contract and old one, the team also was said to be on the verge of signing free-agent pitcher Joe Saunders, pending a physical.

The Saunders contract, reported by Fox Sports, would be for one year and likely take the Mariners beyond $90 million for their current roster and close to a payroll limit the team set when the offseason began.

M’s spokesman Tim Hevly said no deal for Hernandez or Saunders had been finalized.

“We don’t have any announcements to make, nor do we expect that any announcement is imminent,” Hevly said of the Hernandez reports.

The Mariners added catcher Kelly Shoppach to the fold Thursday by announcing his one-year, $1.5 million deal about a week after it was reached.

The delay in announcing it was due to the need to make a corresponding roster move, which the Mariners did Thursday by designating for assignment relief pitcher Shawn Kelley. Seattle has 10 days to release, trade, or try to outright Kelley to the minors - in which case he’d likely be claimed off waivers.

Any team claiming Kelley would be on the hook for his $935,000 salary. The Mariners would owe Kelley just $155,833 – one-sixth of his salary – if they release him.

But the big news of the day was still Hernandez, who had long said he wanted to stay in Seattle and not head elsewhere.

“Felix has made it clear he’d like to stay here, and we’ve made it clear we’d like him to stay,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said when the offseason began.

Zduriencik had faced increased heat in recent seasons to trade Hernandez for a boatload of talent to try to jump-start a rebuilding process that has seen three consecutive last-place finishes in the A.L. West. But Zduriencik held off on doing that and now will try to incorporate Hernandez into the longterm vision of that rebuilding plan, about to enter its fifth year.

The Mariners spoke optimistically about the future three years ago when Hernandez was handed a five-year, $78 million extension. The new contract would add five years to that deal and make the total payout for the remaining seven seasons $175 million, sources reported.

Hernandez has since delivered a Cy Young Award in 2010 and a fourth-place finish for the prize last year to go with his first perfect game. He is 98-76 lifetime with a 3.22 earned-run average and 1,487 strikeouts.

But the team has been unable to shake its losing ways even with their ace and must find a way to surround Hernandez with added talent in order to avoid a repeat of past struggles.

One thing that could help is added television revenue the Mariners look poised to secure in coming years. They will effectively be paying for Hernandez’s contract with at least $25 million in additional revenue from new national TV deals with Fox and Turner starting in 2014.

On an even more lucrative note, a 2015 opt-out clause in the team’s local TV deal with Root Sports could enable the Mariners to score a monster contract worth billions as the Dodgers, Angels and Rangers already have done. And fronting that television package would be Hernandez, now the undisputed face of the franchise.

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