And while Hernandez’s new contract will be the most ever paid to a Seattle pitcher – $78 million over those five years, the contract is heavily backloaded and leaves the Mariners with some room under their projected budget limits to continue to add to the roster.

Seattle spent almost $99 million on player payroll a year ago, and Hernandez’s contract calls for him to get $6.5 million in 2010 with a prorated portion of his $3.5 million signing bonus.

That total brings the amount of money the Mariners have committed toward the 2010 roster to about $89 million, leaving at least the perception that the club can keep on shopping. The Mariners are known to be interested in lefty Jarrod Washburn and right-hander Ben Sheets to take over in the rotation’s third spot behind Hernandez and Cliff Lee, and it now appears the club has the money to sign either, although whether the Mariners will choose either or go in another direction is yet to be seen.

“I would never say whether or not we’ve reached our (spending) limit,” Zduriencik said at the press conference officially announcing Hernandez’s five-year deal.

Asked if the deal freed up money as laid out above, the cagey Zduriencik said only “maybe not.”

Still, the Mariners put in an offer of $8 million in the salary arbitration case with Hernandez and the pitcher countered with a request of $11.5 million. Clearly if the Mariners had lost the case — Hernandez was 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting, so a loss was certainly possible — that would have been a serious differential in expenditure from what the Mariners now owe.

So yes, the Mariners have money to spend — somewhere between $5-10 million depending on how much the club needs to keep for a mid-season reserve — at a time when most teams do not. That they aren’t willing to talk about the process is simply the Zduriencik way. He likes to keep things quiet. Although the Mariners’ desire to get the 23-year-old Hernandez’s name on a contract extension has been rabid for over two years now, the deal was all but finalized before word leaked out Sunday that Seattle had been successful.

“I wanted to stay here and I want to win the World Series here for the fans. This is a great city, the fans are great and the ballpark is unbelievable.”
— Felix Hernandez Hernandez never wanted to go anywhere else and didn’t want to wait for a couple of years to see if the Red Sox or Yankees backed up a Brinks truck as an enticement to go elsewhere. That led agent Wil Polidor to say, “in the end, we work for him, and this was always what Felix wanted to do.”

The moves that Zduriencik has already made, including signing Hernandez’s close friend, center fielder Franklin Gutierrez to a four-year deal, signing free agent third baseman Chone Figgins for four years, trading for former Cy Young Award winner Lee and bringing in two high on-base/plus-defense guys in outfielder Milton Bradley and first baseman Casey Kotchman, made such a decision “easy in my mind,” Hernandez said.

“With the moves that Jack has made, we’re a contender right now,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got great pitching and great defense, and the offense is improved. I want to go to the playoffs and go to the World Series, and I think this team can do it.”

That would be quite a change for the Mariners, who despite winning 85 games last year haven’t been consistent winners since the early part of the last decade. The Mariners averaged 93 wins from 2000-03, but the club hasn’t been to the postseason since 2001 and has never been to the World Series.

“I wanted to stay here and I want to win the World Series here for the fans,” Hernandez said. “This is a great city, the fans are great and the ballpark (Safeco Field) is unbelievable. I tell all the players that.”

If the word continues to get out, Seattle’s investment in Hernandez could pay off huge for Zduriencik’s club, because that’s the exact message the GM wants to send. A decade ago, players liked coming to Seattle because the weather and the winning both were good. The weather hasn’t changed, but the winning is just now starting to resurface. And the Mariners need both to attract players to a city that is the most remote in the major leagues.

In the past, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson took off for more centrally located areas. If Hernandez can be used as bait to lure first-class players back, the $78 million price will seem a steal.

Hernandez said that while he was delighted to have the five-year deal, he doesn’t see it having a major impact on his pitching.

“I want to do what I can do to be the best pitcher in baseball,” he said. “That’s not going to change. I’m going to do the same work and be the same pitcher. I’m more mature now, and I think that will make me a better pitcher.”

And that should make the Mariners a team to fear in the American League West.

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