joe saunders mariners
So intimidating!

Thursday was a big day in Mariner land. It was announced that the Mariners signed King Felix to a long-term deal, and then officially signed Kelly Shoppach. To make room they designated Shawn Kelly for assignment, and just for good measure signed Joe Saunders.

King Felix becomes the highest paid pitcher in baseball. These large deals are getting harder to evaluate thanks to increasingly large television deals and the increase of large extensions for superstar players. Keith Law once told me that he doesn’t write about extensions because there isn’t enough to evaluate. The more I thought about this extension in particular, I realized that this could be approached from several different ways and be talked about in several different very wordy posts. Felix is 26 and the deal ends when he is 33, so we are talking about getting all of Felix’s prime years, and not having to pay for years way after his prime.

Felix will be making a 1/4th of the Mariners payroll. As good as Felix is, he isn’t great enough to take a team to the playoffs by being 25 % of the team’s production. Even if one is extremely optimistic and projects Felix to be a 5 win (above replacement) pitcher in each of the 7 years, that is still just 20 wins above replacement, or about 72 wins (according to .320 winning percentage as replacement level). The Mariners will have to increase payroll or be extremely efficient with the rest of their money. The Mariners TV deal is reportedly set to change in 2015, and even though they haven’t been very good, it is generally assumed that the Mariners will get a large increase in money. Of course, there haven’t been many concise projections, and even less projections of what a future payroll would look like. Of course, it should go up, and I am sure they have their internal projections, but we, or at least I, have no idea at all of what it will look like.

With all reservations aside, Mariner fans realize that the King Felix means more than just his production on the field. If ownership did not give Felix what he wanted, and he left, whether via trade or free agency after the 2014 season, not only would the Mariners lose an elite pitcher, they would lose the fans if they still weren’t a good team. The Mariners being bad now has seriously hurt attendance, but on the days that Felix pitches, at least the 3rd base side of the stadium was full of yellow shirts.

Now, I don’t care if the owners make money. This is a sports site, not a business site. I write about the Mariners, not economics. With that said, the owners do care about making money. I care about evaluating baseball players, but they care about making money. Now usually, success equals money, so building a good team will lead to good attendance in most cases (the main exception is the Tampa Bay Rays). There are hypothetical situations where one could see the Mariners being better eventually without Felix (the most obvious example being a trade for a bunch of players, and using the money saved to spend on free agents that make the team and depth better). However, this would, in the short term, cripple attendance. If Mariner fans are already cynical, imagine a Felixless 90 loss Mariner team. The front office may have been a little burned anyway. The Mariners traded another elite pitcher, Cliff Lee, to the rival Texas Rangers and the most they got from it was one year of John Jaso (thanks to the Josh Lueke/Rays deal), and they valued him so little that he rode the bench for the majority of the first half of the year, and then was traded to a division rival.

The “trading an elite pitcher for prospects” doesn’t have a good recent track record, as shown by the Johan Santana trade, and even the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, as the prospects the Rockies received in the deal, even though Ubaldo turned out to be broken, have not panned out so far. So while I have advocated trading Felix in the past, that is not a risk the Mariners are willing to take. Amazingly, signing Felix to a long-term deal, and making him the highest paid pitcher in baseball, is the safe choice. If the Mariners did trade Felix, and the deal ultimately failed, obviously that is the end of Jack Z’s tenure (even if they made a good deal, there is a good chance that Z would be gone before the prospects developed anyway), and the Mariners roster would most likely lie in shambles (or at least wouldn’t have had enough to be competitive despite Zunino and the big 3).

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With a top 10 farm system, there is hope that the Mariners, even assuming that they don’t have money to sign free agents (which they may with a new TV deal), the Mariners could put a competitive team around Felix (or, at the very least, wouldn’t be able to blame failed prospects on fence distances). Even if the deal fails, say Felix keeps losing velocity, or gets hurt, or just regresses, the Mariners would be understood by fans. Attendance would still fall, but it fans would most likely be more understanding if the Mariners commit to Felix and it backfires. It wouldn’t make the future losses any better, and there would be the regret that the Mariners didn’t take advantage of the value they had in Felix.

Of course, this doesn’t even factor in the contract and commitment from Felix’ perspective. Considering the quality of teams the Mariners have put around Felix, one would certainly understand if he gave the middle finger to the front office during negotiations or demanded a trade. Of course, 175 million dollars of guaranteed money, including doubling the salaries of his next two seasons, will cause a person to forgive a multitude of sins.

The Mariners also re-signed Felix’ brother Moises to another minor league deal. As talked about before, Moises is about as much of a non prospect as possible, and obviously this move wasn’t for baseball reasons.

I wrote about Shoppach and how he fits on the team here.

It is widely thought that the Mariners are planning on trading Kelley, as it was surprising that he was designated for assignment. I ranked Kelley as the 27th best player on the 40 man roster in the most recent ranking. I literally went back to the official 40 man roster on the Mariners website to make sure that Carlos Peguero was still on the roster. I have no idea why he still is. I have repeated this argument and bewilderment multiple times, so I won’t do it again. The point is that Peguero is not a big league player, and Kelly has shown that he is. In fact, my first thought was that Kelly was one of the best players that have been DFA’d recently. So I looked at the MLB Depth Charts DFA Tracker and looked at all the players DFA’d since October. Here is a complete list of players DFA’d since then with a higher Baseball Reference WAR in 2012 than Kelley:

Jim Miller

Mickey Storey

Chris Seddon

Chris Dickerson

George Kottaras

So it was a couple more than I thought there would be. These are somewhat useful players that are not full-time players or have a flaw. However, the point still stands, as I think Kelley is a useful player that would help even the deep Mariners bullpen in 2013. Peguero is not the kind of player that will help them. The Mariners already signed Kelley to a 935,000 dollar deal a couple of weeks ago. If he clears waivers and is released, he will be given $155,833 of that money. If he is claimed, the new team will owe all the entirety of the money. I believe that Kelley is worth that, and even if the Mariners have to pay him the 155,833 dollars, it won’t hurt them as much, in my opinion, as losing Kelley. I think Shoppach is more valuable than Kelley, and he isn’t getting paid much more, so at least the Mariners are improving, but they could have cut someone that was less valuable and not helpful for the 2013 or future Mariner teams. It was thought that the Mariners just sent down Kelley to AAA in 2012 for a period of time because they could, not because they thought he didn’t belong on the MLB team. Evidently that wasn’t true, it seems that he they didn’t believe that he had much future value.

Of course, signing Saunders means that the Mariners will have to remove someone else off the 40 man roster, but they won’t have to until the deal is official, which as we have seen this off-season, can take weeks, or in extreme cases, months. I am going to turn my evaluation of Saunders into a separate article.

  • maqman

    Felix has already created 38.3 fWAR for the M’s worth $191.5MM based on $5MM per fWAR (It’s current value is probably a little higher and will be even more so when gets paid the first dollar on his extension.) So far the team has paid him about $60MM so he has already earned about $130MM in surplus value. There is a very low probability that Felix will not more than earn every dollar he will have been paid in his career by the M’s.

    Additionally, as with the Yankees and A-Rod the M’s will most likely buy insurance against any medical reason ending his ability to pitch for them.
    According to Wendy Thurm (of Fangraphs) the M’s current regional TV deal is worth $45MM a season. Their viewing market covers all of Washington, northern Oregon, most of Idaho and Alaska and western Montana. They along with all 29 other teams will start getting an additional $25MM in revenue from the new MLB national rights sales next year, taking that up to about $50MM a season. That total of $95MM a year next year will about cover their current payroll, including Felix’s. When they renegotiate their regional deal in 2015 (if not before) their media revenues should be close to Texas but not at the level of the NY or LA teams. Texas signed their media deal two years before the Dodgers took regional TV money to a whole new level. Their deal was big then, not so much now and will be even less when the M’s set their new deal up.

    The M’s have put their money where their mouth was so the snarks can now zip theirs. Just think of it! No more trade Felix threads for years and years!

  • Thanks Maqman for the tv deal info (I don’t really keep track with that stuff). Yeah, I am sure it is insured, but if Felix suddenly turns into a terrible pitcher, then they don’t get that money. Not saying there is any reason to think that will happen, but there is always risks, even with great great players, which is what Felix is.

    The bargain Felix has been relative to performance so far is irrelevant at this point. While it should be appreciated, signing a new contract is about expected future performance, not past performance (while certainly past performance is one way to project future performance, they aren’t the same thing). It isn’t good baseball or good business to pay players what they have been worth, you have to pay them what you think they will be worth.

    Most great players (or even decent players) are bargains early in their career thanks to the way salaries, arbitration, and team control are set up.
    But yes, I think Mariner fans should be very happy.

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