Historically, five-year deals to pitchers are risky

Greg Jayne: Commentary

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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Through the accumulated wisdom of the ages, several irrefutable truisms have emerged.

Like the one about not running with scissors. And not sticking a key in an electrical outlet. And, perhaps most important, not taking the helm of a late-night talk show because you might have to give it back.

But as future generations study the early 21st century, they likely will wonder why we haven’t yet embraced the ethos of not signing a pitcher to a five-year contract.

This last one seems particularly relevant this week, as the Mariners have signed Felix Hernandez to a five-year deal worth $78 million. Now, if any pitcher is worth a five-year contract, it likely is Hernandez. He might be the best pitcher in baseball, he’s a power pitcher, and he’s 23 years old.

He is a remarkable talent, and could evolve into a reincarnation of a vintage Pedro Martinez. Except that he’s about twice as big, which would make him worth about two Pedros.

But even such a valuable property isn’t worth a five-year deal — because Hernandez is a pitcher.

It’s not that pitchers aren’t important. It’s just that their health is notoriously fickle. Look at it this way:

Hernandez was second in Cy Young voting last year. Considering that from 1990-2004 five other pitchers finished in the top three at the age of 23 or younger, this is quite a feat.

The problem is that those pitchers were Mark Prior in 2003, Mark Mulder in 2001, Scott Erickson and Jim Abbott in 1991, and Ramon Martinez in 1990. That’s not exactly a roll call of dominant pitchers from the past two decades.

In fact, over the next five years, those pitchers collectively went 250-233. That’s a grand total of 10 wins a season.

Why, Prior lasted three more seasons after his big year, going 18-17 before his career was ended by injuries.

Not that this is an entirely fair comparison. None of those pitchers, save for perhaps Prior, were as good as Hernandez.

But the cautionary tales don’t end there. In 2005, Dontrelle Willis finished second in Cy Young voting after going 22-10 at the age of 23. The past two years, in what should be his prime, Willis has gone 1-6 while making 14 starts.

The fact is that starting pitchers are about as stable as the stock market. There have been exceptions; Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens were accomplished at an early age, and they managed to have lengthy careers. But almost as a rule, pitchers are a lousy long-term investment.

For the Mariners, keeping Hernandez was as important psychologically as well as physically.

“For me, it’s about being here,” the pitcher said Thursday. “I know the fans need to be in the playoffs. We need to be in the playoffs. And we knew we had to get things done, early this year, before spring training, and now my mind is clear. All I’ve got to do is go out there and pitch.”

He’ll have plenty of support. The Mariners won 85 games last year, and they have added Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley.

But committing $58 million to a pitcher over the final three years of a contract could be a debilitating burden if that pitcher isn’t healthy three years from now.

“I think they actually overpaid just a little, but then they can probably afford to,” Rob Neyer of ESPN.com wrote this week during an online chat. “Nice to know he’s in the fold for quite some time.”

Yes, it is nice. It’s a feel-good moment for the Mariners, one that enhances the anticipation of what could be an exciting season. But if history is any judge, future generations might someday wonder what the Mariners were thinking.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne