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Updated Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 10:31 PM

The Mariners' receipt for hope: $175 million

By Jerry Brewer
Times staff columnist

On the other side of the room, where praise was scarce, Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong stood and observed Felix Hernandez grinning through the final media questions about his $175 million contract.

As they watched Wednesday, they told old stories and beamed. Lincoln, the Mariners' CEO, recalled when Hernandez joined the organization as a teenager with so much hair that "every time he threw a pitch, his hat would fall off." Armstrong, the team president, remembered Hernandez's Christmas present to about 250 staffers last December: autographed baseballs that included the dates of his perfect game last August and his Cy Young Award in 2010.

What a man he has become, they kept telling each other.

"He's our guy," said Armstrong, thinking about the 10 years he has known Hernandez, now 26. "He was born here. He was developed here. We know him better than anybody on the planet."

This was a rare moment, for sure. Lincoln and Armstrong, the two men most vilified for the Mariners' struggles the past decade, were able to be proud and relaxed in public without the threat of rampant cynicism. Whether you like or trust the two executives, not to mention the owners who keep them employed, there's no denying this: While Hernandez's uncanny love of the Mariners is the primary reason that the city's biggest sports star will remain in Seattle through 2019, the organization responded to his affinity properly, and in doing so, it sent a message.

And that message reads: There's hope for the allegedly thrifty and oblivious Mariners leadership.

"This signing, given the size and length of the contract, is the best evidence that the ownership group is committed to winning and doing what it takes to win," Lincoln said. "It ought to remove any doubts about how the ownership group feels and what its objectives are."

It won't remove all doubt. But it's an initial stride toward eliminating cries that the Mariners are more into creating profitable family entertainment than building a serious baseball contender.

Credibility won't be achieved until the franchise makes a series of moves that are both sensible and expensive, but awarding Hernandez with the richest pitching contract in baseball history isn't a decision to minimize. This wasn't just a matter of Hernandez, his agents and general manager Jack Zduriencik coming to an agreement. Deals of this length and money come together because owners are willing to take on the financial risk.

The fact that it was such a no-brainer — even though Hernandez had two years remaining on his old contract — indicates a level of commitment and foresight that you weren't sure the Mariners had.

I've always believed the criticism of the Mariners' struggles has been oversimplified and lacking nuance. Cast mostly as cheap and uncaring, Lincoln and Armstrong have been the targets of fan frustration. But there's so much more to the debate about why the Mariners have fallen so far.

The virus has been an inability to evaluate talent and confusion over the proper way to build a team. The Mariners were floundering, lost, clueless. Just five years ago, they allowed a lame-duck general manager to have a team-record $117 million payroll, and they lost 101 games, becoming the first team in American pro sports to achieve this embarrassing double-triple.

After the failures of former general manager Bill Bavasi, the Mariners abandoned their anti-rebuilding stance and turned to Zduriencik, who started a youth movement and plans to build the Mariners from the farm system up. The lowering of the payroll over the past five years has been the result of needing to be patient with the youth movement, as well as a desire to be more financially prudent after hitting rock bottom with stupid contracts such as the $48 million Carlos Silva deal.

If my assertion is true, the Mariners' payroll will rise significantly in the ensuing years because they're at a point in their rebuilding in which they need to supplement their young players with a few significant free agents, and they can't have a pitcher who plays once every five days eating up such a large percentage of their payroll.

Zduriencik was asked last week if the Mariners could have signed slugger Josh Hamilton, who spurned the Mariners' nine-figure offer to take a $125 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels, and redone Hernandez's contract.

"Yeah, I do believe we could," Jack Z said. "I really do. I don't think it would have affected this deal because this ownership has said, for the right player at the right time, we will invest. I think that commitment is there, although it didn't work out (with Hamilton).

"This commitment to Felix really says they will spend, and they have."

They have to spend. If Hernandez represents, say, 30 percent of the payroll for the life of his contract, the Mariners are going nowhere. If Zduriencik's plan works, they'll have marquee free agents of their own to re-sign eventually, and they'll have impact players to pursue to create the strongest roster possible. It makes no sense to tear apart the ballclub like the Mariners have and then fail to put it back together the right way.

Hernandez isn't just the Mariners' franchise player. He's a symbol that the franchise will reward excellence.

For all the uncertainty that causes legitimate speculation — from 85-year-old majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi's level of commitment as he ages to the financial struggles of Chris Larson, the largest minority owner — the Mariners put King Felix's record-setting deal together in a decisive and proactive manner.

"I mean, the guy wants to be here," Lincoln said, laughing. "Hello! Let's get real."

The hope doesn't just lie in the Mariners making the right decision. It's their understanding that this was the only decision, no matter the price.

"There will be a day when he leads us," Lincoln said, pausing for the right word, "to glory."

It'll be the day after the Mariners ensure they have done everything to build the right team around him.

Is that day nearing?

The evidence presented last week is compelling.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

Twitter: @JerryBrewer


CHARLIE RIEDEL / AP
Mariners ace Felix Hernandez has the richest contract in history for a pitcher: seven years, $175 million.




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