On Thursday, to the delight of Seattle's fans and front office, the question mark known as Felix Hernandez's contract situation officially became a resounding exclamation point.
In a late-afternoon press conference at Safeco Field, the club announced the signing of the 23-year-old staff ace and 2009 American League Cy Young Award runner-up to a five-year extension that The Associated Press reported is worth $78 million.
"We realize that at least for the next five years, we'll have Felix Hernandez in a Seattle Mariner uniform," general manager Jack Zduriencik said.
"And that says something about his commitment ... to this organization. It says something about his desire and his understanding of this game, but it also says something about what he sees happening here in this organization, and that's a positive."
It was all positives for Hernandez on Thursday.
The pitcher, in town from his native Venezuela, beamed on a podium in the interview room, looking every part the top-dollar ace with a crisp suit and tie and a grin from ear to dazzling-diamond-studded ear.
"Seattle is the first team to give me the opportunity to become a professional baseball player, and I'm here five more years and I hope we make the playoffs and win the World Series for the fans," Hernandez said. "I know they need it."
Hernandez's emerging dominance already played a huge role in Seattle's startling turnaround from a 101-loss season in 2008 to an 85-77 record last year, the first campaign with Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu at the helm.
Hernandez, who made his big league debut in 2005 at the age of 18, came of age in 2009 with a career year, going 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA, pitching a career-high 238 2/3 innings, striking out 217 batters and being selected for his first All-Star Game. He led the AL in winning percentage (.792), tied for the lead in wins, ranked second in ERA, third in innings pitched and fourth in strikeouts. He finished second to Kansas City's Zack Greinke in the AL Cy voting.
By getting this crucial deal done now, the Mariners have seemingly set themselves up for continued improvement at a reasonable cost.
They avoided arbitration for two years, bought out the first three years of Hernandez's free agency, kept the cornerstone of a team on the rise comfortably in place and served notice that they have the financial flexibility to continue to reshape their roster for 2010 and beyond.
According to reports, Hernandez will receive a $3.5 million signing bonus and a $6.5 million salary this season. Since his back-loaded, limited no-trade clause contract has him set to earn $10 million in 2011, $18.5 million in '12, $19.5 million in '13 and $20 million in '14, the Mariners have a bit of wiggle room -- reports have it at anywhere from $7-10 million left -- to pursue talent now while maintaining the club's payroll at the $98 million mark, where it roughly was in 2009.
Zduriencik said club president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln considered the Hernandez deal as much of a no-brainer as he did.
"As we sat and talked about it, they were on board," Zduriencik said. "It was not a difficult sell. I didn't have to sit there and twist anybody's arm. I didn't have to convince anybody. ... At the end of the day, it was really simple. Let's get it done.
"In this particular case, he's 23 years of age, he's athletic as can be, he's going to get bigger and stronger, and I think that ... when you can do [these deals], when you have the opportunity to secure a guy like this, you do it."
The next pitching project the team would likely want to pursue is convincing Cliff Lee to stay. The former Cy Young-winning lefty, who came over from Philadelphia for prospects in a three-team trade in December, is eligible to become a free agent after the 2010 season.
Zduriencik wouldn't comment on the team's payroll situation in detail per club policy, but he said he's still looking for pieces.
"We're always going to stay active," said Zduriencik, who already this winter has brought back Ken Griffey Jr. and shortstop Jack Wilson, signed third baseman Chone Figgins, and traded for Lee, outfielder/designated hitter Milton Bradley, reliever Brandon League and Casey Kotchman.
"I've gotten phone calls in the last few days about discussions and possibilities and where we can go. We're keeping our ears open and we're certainly trying to continue to improve this club."
Among the needs the Mariners still could fill: signing or trading for another starting pitcher, acquiring a right-handed impact hitter who can play some left field and getting a second baseman if the club decides to trade incumbent Jose Lopez to fill one of the other areas of need.
Meanwhile, the big horse at the top of the rotation is set for another half-decade, which made everyone associated with the Mariners -- particularly Hernandez -- smile.
"It was not a tough decision," Hernandez said. "It was easy. The team that Jack's building right now, I think we're going to be better. I'm excited. ... I was talking with my wife and she said she wanted to stay in Seattle. She didn't want to move anyplace. She'd like to stay here a long time, and everybody's happy.
"We got this out of the way, so my mind is ready to play baseball now."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.