Felix Hernandez’s elbow ‘issue’ complicates $175 million contract extension

David Brown
Big League Stew

There's an old, flawed saying that pitching is 75 percent of baseball. In reality, it's no more or less than 50 percent (including defense). Hitting, naturally, is the other half. That said, when your team has bad pitching, it sure seems like the odds are 3-to-1 against your team winning that day. If not greater.

THAT said, any team spending 75 percent of its payroll on pitching is doing it wrong. Any pitcher is a sore elbow or shoulder away from having his effectiveness weakened, perhaps significantly. Take what might be happening with Felix Hernandez.

On Thursday, he agreed with the Seattle Mariners on the framework for a $175 million contract extension, sending fans of that team to the moon. On Friday, citing "pressure" from the M's over the big contract, Hernandez pulled out of the World Baseball Classic, sending Venezuela into a mild collective depression. On Sunday, reports surfaced (first from ESPN's Buster Olney that Hernandez's right elbow has become "an issue" that is impeding the big extension from becoming official.

Reporter Geoff Baker of the Seatttle Times jumped in with some ominous but foggy details:

• He has heard "rumblings" that Hernandez failed a physical.

• Hernandez's agent did not respond to a phone call or to text messages asking him to confirm or refute the "rumblings."

• Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik gave him a "no comment" after being asked if Hernandez had failed a physical. Jack Z also said it's team policy to not comment on any ongoing negotiations, and that Hernandez will "be there" when spring training opens Tuesday.

The reason people grimace when they hear "elbow" is because it can be the first warning sign that Tommy John ligament replacement surgery might be coming. Nobody is saying Hernandez needs TJ. Yet. It's just logic: If someone has a sore elbow and they continue to pitch, it stands to reason they risk a blowout. Note this about Hernandez's workload, via Buster Onley:

Hernandez has been a workhorse in his career, throwing 1620 1/3 innings already; in fact, since 1969, only three pitchers have thrown more innings before their 27th birthday, according to Elias Sports Bureau -- Bert Blyleven, Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden.

Some good news: None of those guys ever had Tommy John surgery — though Blyleven had what was called a "severe" elbow injury that cost him most of the 1982 season, when he was 31 years old. Blyleven continued pitching into his 40s, finally making the Hall of Fame in 2011. So he turned out OK.

More good-ish news: Hernandez's 2012 season wasn't his best. He experienced a velocity drop in the first half but, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs notes, he was throwing harder in the second half of the season.

So let's say Hernandez develops an elbow problem that, someday, costs him a full season and part of another. He's still on pace to be one of the best pitchers of his generation. Here's the thing, though: Can the small-ish market Mariners justify making Hernandez the highest-paid pitcher in Major League Baseball if they're not going to wring every dime out of the contract?

Everybody needs pitching. But when you have to pay for it through the nose, maybe you're better off letting someone else do it.

Pitchers and catchers report any moment.
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