Felix issue no reason for fans to panic ... yet

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comFebruary 11, 2013 

Three days after the Mariners appeared to make Felix Hernandez the highest paid pitcher in history, the rest of us were reminded about something we already should know.

No contract is official until it’s, like, official.

I figured seven years of injury-free consistency was unrealistic for an athlete who takes the mound 35 times a year to throw about 100 hard pitches that often break sharply. But I also figured Felix’s lucky-for-life deal wouldn’t find life delivering a counterpunch in a mere 72 hours.

Citing an unidentified source on Sunday, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported Hernandez’s right elbow became “an issue” during the medical exam that stood as the only obstacle to a new contract for the Mariners’ ace.

An issue, Buster? Ya think?

Panic is too strong a response. Heck, the snag might just be about the Mariners, who with $175 million on the line, want to structure the contract with precautionary clauses in the event Hernandez suffers a major injury. Make no mistake: Between now and the end of the 2019 season, when the mega-deal would be scheduled to expire, Felix will suffer a major injury.

But during high-stakes negotiations as delicate as these, sources don’t leak information to reporters about a pitcher’s elbow issue unless there’s some sort of an elbow issue. Was it discovered in time to minimize concerns about long-term deterioration? Or was it discovered six months too late?

Hernandez opened the 2012 season amid speculation he’d lost some of the hop on his fastball, but he pitched well enough during the first half of the season to qualify for the American League All-Star team, and he pitched well enough in August — three complete games, including a perfect one at Safeco Field — to make a bid for his second Cy Young Award.

That bid was undone in a hurry. Hernandez lost his first three starts during a curiously challenging September. On Sept. 7, Oakland pummeled him for 11 hits and five earned runs before he was removed in the fifth inning. In his next start, a four-inning fiasco at Toronto, he gave up 10 hits and seven earned runs.

The numbers are telling: five earned runs surrendered in August and 26 earned runs surrendered thereafter.

Was he hurt? If so, did he know it and — owing to his ferocious, competitive nature — pitch anyway? Or were his struggles down the stretch simply the stuff of a tough schedule? He faced the Angels three times over his final six starts, and the playoff-bound A’s and Orioles once apiece.

In any case, Seattle pitchers and catchers are preparing to report for spring camp Tuesday. The prospect of ballplayers performing calisthenics on a freshly mowed lawn is supposed to uplift a baseball fan’s spirit, and perhaps it will. Except the Mariners’ projected opening-night battery — Hernandez and catcher Jesus Montero — is facing a firing line of sensitive questions.

Montero’s name has been linked to a clinic in south Florida associated with the distribution of human growth hormone, a substance banned by Major League Baseball. Montero insists he knows nothing about any of this, but it’s likely he’ll be required to insist some more Tuesday.

Then there’s Hernandez, who at 26 years old has replaced Ichiro Suzuki as the face of the franchise. Like Ichiro, Felix is a rare talent. Unlike Ichiro, Felix has assimilated himself into the Seattle community and connected with the public. When news broke of the contract extension for Felix, there was some grousing in other baseball markets about the sheer insanity of guaranteeing $175 million to a pitcher.

But among Mariners fans, there was no grousing. The author of a perfect game was prepared to write his signature on a bottom line of a contract assuring he’d remain under the team’s control through 2019.

Seven more years of Felix Hernandez meant seven years of you and me showing up at Safeco Field suspecting there was a chance to watch a pitcher make history whenever he trotted out of the dugout for the top of the first. Seven more years of Felix Hernandez meant seven years without issues and snags facing the team’s most popular player.

The seven-year bliss turned out to last 72 hours, but, hey, those 72 hours were some kind of wonderful. They lent cheer and optimism to another dreary week approaching the middle of February.

You take what you can get.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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