If reports are to be believed, Felix Hernandez is considering a contract extension offer from the Seattle Mariners for $100 million over four years. That's an amazing offer, one well worthy of King Felix's talent, but it is also a team-friendly deal, in relative terms. Recall now that Zack Greinke just received a six-year, $147 million pact and then think about what Hernandez could get given that he is decidedly better than Greinke and would be hitting the open market one year younger than Greinke did. With that in mind, there is every reason to believe that Felix could get a longer contract for a greater average annual value.
So what's in it for Hernandez to accept the contract extension from Seattle? He'd be giving away at least two years of guaranteed money and taking a discount of at least a few million bucks per year for the years he did sign on for. The obvious answer here is that Felix wants to give the Mariners a famous "hometown discount." He has made no secret of his love for the city of Seattle, the fans and the organization, so it behooves him to take less money from them out of the goodness of his heart, right?
Well, yes and no, the concept of a hometown discount isn't strictly altruistic. The unspoken ulterior motive for these team-friendly contracts is for the player to allow the team to save money, presumably so it can be re-invested in the roster surrounding the star player who was just so gracious to grant them the luxury of a little spending cash. Of course, that agreement to spend on the rest of the roster is unspoken as well.
For every Jered Weaver, who took an extension well below market value that helped grant the Angels the payroll flexibility to sign Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton, there is a Joer Mauer and the Minnesota Twins who locked up their franchise player and then proceeded to do almost nothing else, damning him to spending the prime of his career mired in mediocrity. What Felix Hernandez and his agent should strongly consider doing before they ink that contract extension is with the M's is to make that unspoken promise to build up the rest of the roster a spoken and contractually binding promise.
We see time and time again players given no-trade clauses so that they have some leverage over where they play, but that does someone like Felix no good when he really truly wants to stay in Seattle. What he needs is leverage to make sure that his graciousness doesn't go or naught. Instead of a no-trade clause, I propose that Hernandez ask for a "must spend" clause. Essentially, in return for him taking less money on his deal, he would be getting the Mariners to agree to maintain a certain minimum payroll, say $115 million in this case as Seattle has been carrying a payroll of around $90 million the last few seasons.
Does spending money guarantee that the rest of the roster will be good? No, but it certainly won't hurt. But the more pressing concern for someone like Felix is that it forces Seattle to try and field a competitive roster for the entirety of the prime of his career. That's an especially important point for a Seattle franchise that has been a bit aimless for the last decade, in large part because of an indifferent ownership group that has yet to really make a legitimate and sustained investment in building this team into something more than the red-headed stepchild of the AL West.
One could argue that if Felix (or whatever star player would employ this tactic) have such doubts over the direction of the franchise, why re-sign? That's certainly a valid argument, but players aren't always that logical and rational. Loyalty and comfort are major factors that could provoke a player into staying in a potentially bad situation. For example, David Wright would have been well-advised to ask for such a clause in his big extension with the Mets who have significant questions regarding the ownership's willingness and ability to fund a quality ballclub on a yearly basis.
Of course, we have to address what happens if the team fails to live up to their payroll obligations. A drastic approach could be giving the player the option to void the rest of the contract, but that seems like a toothless threat given how much the player bent over backwards to stay with their team. A better compromise would be for the team to pay to the star player a "bonus" of whatever the shortfall in payroll was. For example, in our Felix example, if the Mariners spent $110 million on salaries for a season instead of the clause mandated $115 million, they'd have to pay that difference of $5 million right to Hernandez. In effect, it reimburses him for the discount he granted the team. That may provide little solace if the salary shortfall means the team is rebuilding and/or unable to attract quality talent, but it certainly provides the player a better consolation prize than the big fat nothing he would get if the team cratered and went into rebuilding mode in the absence of the clause.
For teams, the wisdom of such a clause will vary based on their circumstances. Obviously they would be stupid to sign off on such a clause if they know that they can't budget for the specified payroll floor several years out. For a team with fluctuating finances (like the Mets) or an unstable ownership situation, it would be a major risk. But if the team has stable ownership and steady revenue streams, then there is really no risk at all outside of the appearance that the player getting the clause is somehow being given preferential treatment, which really he is, or that he is being given input into roster construction, which he isn't other than mandating a certain level of spending.
Is any player/agent ballsy enough to ask for such a thing? Probably not. Would a team be humble enough to accept if asked? Again, probably not, if only because of the precedent it sets. But maybe it is a precedent that needs to be set, especially for mid-market teams who could use another weapon in their arsenal when it comes to trying to keep their franchise players from leaving for big money in bigger markets.
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I think it probably doesn't work as a clause because you can't force free agents to sign somewhere. Seattle tried for Justin Upton via trade, they pursued Josh Hamilton and a couple of other sluggers this offseason and came up empty handed. They ended up signing Jason Bay for cheap and trading for Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse in order to boost their offense. But in truth, would either Morse or Morales sign in Seattle if they were free agents? I don't know the answer for sure, but probably not.