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Originally published November 17, 2009 at 10:02 PM | Page modified November 18, 2009 at 10:53 AM

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Larry Stone

Larry Stone: What's next for Felix Hernandez?

Mariners will try to lock up their 23-year-old star to a long-term contract. But what happens if they can't?

Seattle Times baseball reporter

This week, we have celebrated once more the brilliance that was Felix Hernandez in 2009 — no less blinding by virtue of finishing second Tuesday to Zack Greinke in the Cy Young race.

But that exercise only serves to reawaken the 1,000-pound gorilla that is now attached to King Felix in the mind of every Mariners fan.

They watched Randy Johnson get traded to Houston after a contract snit. They watched Ken Griffey Jr. request, and receive, a trade to Cincinnati to be closer to his family. They watched Alex Rodriguez take the money and run.

Now these same fans have given their heart to this regal Venezuelan fireballer, and they fret about his future in Seattle — rightfully so. For this is the winter that will almost certainly seal his future with the Mariners.

Or lack of the same.

At some point between now and opening day 2010 — precisely when this will happen is a state secret, guarded zealously by both sides — general manager Jack Zduriencik and Hernandez's agent, Alan Nero, will engage in serious talks about a contract extension.

To review: Hernandez is eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, giving him two more seasons under Mariners control. Best case.

In absence of an extension, Hernandez's salary during those two seasons will either be negotiated by the two parties, or determined via the arbitration process.

Either way, Hernandez, who made $3.8 million in 2009, is now poised to catapult into the financial stratosphere. Nothing like he stands to get on the open market, mind you (which, absent an injury, will be riches unknown to any player not named Alex Rodriguez), but likely in or near the eight-figure neighborhood.

And that's a very nice neighborhood in which to reside. But it is pocket change compared to the numbers that Nero and Zduriencik will be tossing around.

Hernandez is 23 and at the peak of his profession. Not since A-Rod has someone this good, and this young, been on the verge of hitting the free-agent jackpot.

I expect the Mariners to make a robust and sincere attempt to lock up Hernandez. He's too great, too popular, too essential, to let get away without a fight. And right now, according to rival executives, the Mariners' focus is on winning in 2010, not dumping Hernandez, despite listening to overtures — most aggressively from the Red Sox — at the trade deadline last year.

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The great unknown, of course, is Hernandez's desire to hit the open market vis a vis his willingness to remain in Seattle.

The Mariners, at least, are making it harder for him. He has a good relationship with manager Don Wakamatsu and pitching coach Rick Adair, and he seems quite happy with his teammates. The team is coming off a winning season, and will try to take another step up next year.

Yet the lure of untold wealth can be a powerful magnet. Insurmountable, even.

Right now, Zduriencik is saying all the right things. At the recent general managers meeting, he told reporters, "Felix is our property. We're going to have him for the next two years and we're looking forward to having him beyond that."

Nero, too, has been soothing in all his public comments. When I talked to him during the season, he said, "Felix doesn't want to be anywhere else."

I couldn't reach Nero on Tuesday, but last week he told 710 ESPN's Shannon Drayer that Hernandez "likes Seattle, he likes his team. He likes being in the competitive situation he is in Seattle. He is not frustrated or anxious about the situation right now."

Nero went on to say of potential negotiations with the Mariners: "We are not in a hurry. It is up to them and when they are ready ... I really don't see anything to be worried about."

Unless, of course, those negotiations — which as Drayer noted could end up being tied to the arbitration hearing dates in February — go nowhere.

And then, the Mariners would have to consider the alternatives, which are obvious and distasteful and can be summed up like this: trade Felix now; trade him later; keep him for his remaining two years and let him walk away for draft picks; keep him and keep negotiating, knowing that the closer he gets to free agency, the harder it will be to lock him up.

Hello, gorilla.

These are tense and tenuous times for devotees of Hernandez. His runner-up finish in the Cy Young race is a tantalizing indicator of his ever-expanding potential — and a jarring reminder of the complex challenges ahead for the Mariners.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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