The Seattle Mariners wanted to sign Felix Hernandez to a long-term contract, and late last week it looked like they'd done it: Seven years, $175 million—or five years, if you roll in the two $20 million paydays the new deal subsumes. Then, over the weekend, some weird delays: There were questions not only about the nature of the deal, but about the way it would change if Hernandez developed elbow problems. That part—not the pillar-of-his-team stuff—was what interested me most about the deal.
After a closer look at King Felix's elbow, the Mariners got the deal done, basically exactly as it had been reported initially. But it's that ambivalence about locking pitchers up long-term—and what it does to the implicit ways pitchers have been discounted—that could still have the most bearing on Adam Wainwright's next contract.
Chris Carpenter contracts
The Cardinals signed Chris Carpenter as a free agent in 2003. Since then they've paid him a little over $50 million in the years he's pitched—2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011—and a little over $40 million in the years he basically hasn't, counting 2013.
In every full season Carpenter has pitched, FanGraphs's dollar-value estimate suggests he's been a major bargain; in 2009 and 2011 he was worth $25 and $22.6 million, respectively, compared to $13 and $14 million salaries. In exchange for that surplus value, the Cardinals have shot $40 million out of a hot-dog cannon into Lake DeWitt.
That's what makes pitching contracts pitching contracts, as I've come to understand them. MVP-caliber starting pitchers are paid like All-Star-caliber position players—and in slightly shorter increments—and in return the team is forced to consider the possibility that a large fraction of their payroll will, one year, provide them absolutely no value.
Felix Hernandez contracts
Recently, though, a crop of pitchers has reached free agency conspicuously young—Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia. These pitchers, having been remarkably healthy so far, were (for obvious reasons) not very amenable to signing big extensions that made them free agents again sometime around their 32nd birthday.
Sabathia's contract—signed in the twilight of the New York Yankees' Yankee-dom—is the most interesting model, and the one that came up again and again while the Mariners and Hernandez tip-toed around their own negotiations. In lieu of the implicit discounts and risks in Carpenter's contract, Sabathia and the Yankees made some explicit concessions to the facts of starting pitcher life.
For the pitcher who has everything: An opt-out clause that kicked in after Sabathia's age-30 season, when the average star pitcher would be hitting free agency anyway. For the team that wants everything, after Sabathia let the opt-out clause lapse and negotiated an extension: A vesting option with conditions that abstract out to "don't get hurt like a pitcher gets hurt."
Sabathia's last $25 million—against a $5 million buyout, compared to the million-dollar buyout in Carpenter's 2007 deal—becomes guaranteed, per Baseball Reference, if he:
1) does not end 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury, 2) does not spend more than 45 days in 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury or 3) does not make more than six relief appearances in 2016 because of a left shoulder injury
That's one way of giving a starting pitcher the chance to earn position-player tenure on his big contract.
Greinke's contract is similarly byzantine: There's a $12 million signing bonus, and he's got a three-year opt-out clause of his own that also becomes valid if he's ever traded. Cain's contract had an injury-free vesting option and a smaller signing bonus.
The Felix Hernandez contract is perhaps the strangest—the most explicit—of all of them. According to recent reports—here's Lookout Landing on the subject—the deal has what amounts to a built-in make-good contract at the end of the deal. If he spends 130 consecutive days on the disabled list as a result of an elbow problem, the Mariners get a one-year option for $1 million. (The immediate precedent is John Lackey's Red Sox contract.)
Adam Wainwright contracts
Wainwright, for his part, is more Carpenter than Felix—he's actually just a year younger than CC Sabathia, who's coming up on the fifth season of his Yankees tenure. He's also already had elbow surgery, and his steady peripherals weren't reflected in his 3.94 comeback-season ERA.
But he and the Cardinals have already made two unsuccessful attempts at drawing up a long-term contract, the most recent one ending in an apparently amicable hiatus as Spring Training began. As details leak out about the Cardinals' offers and Wainwright's demands, it'll be important to see how far apart they are on years and dollars. But the kind of contract each side wants could prove equally crucial.