Snags in deal for King Felix both specific and general

Stephen Dunn

Okay, so last week we "reported" that Félix Hernández was close to becoming the highest-paid pitcher in the history of baseball. It was a funny thing, though ... nothing happened, even though everyone reported that it was going to happen. Now, sometimes that's just because everybody's just working through some last-minute contract details. The size of hotel suites, the number of flights for the family on private jets, free sodas, those sorts of things.

But this seems to be different. Here's the Seattle Times' Geoff Baker on Sunday:

Early yesterday, I started hearing rumblings that Felix Hernandez had failed a physical that he’d taken up in Seattle ahead of agreeing to a five-year contract extension that would pay him an additional $135.5 million starting in 2015. I placed a flurry of phone calls, including one to his agent, Will Polidor, asking whether this was true. Polidor did not return the call, nor did he reply to text messages.

That alone was disconcerting, because if it wasn’t true that Hernandez had failed a physical — and I was led to believe last week that he’d already taken one — then most people would want to quickly nip that rumor in the bud and put it out. All it takes is a "No way, not true!" and you’re done. Now, Polidor is a busy man. But he’s known to get back in touch with people.

--snip--

All we know is, the contract has not been announced, there have been rumblings since yesterday about Hernandez having some type of physical issue. We know that the pitcher’s agent told a reporter Hernandez will not be participating in the World Baseball Classic as previously planned. And we have this afternoon’s report by Buster Olney mentioning an issue with Hernandez’s elbow. Then, we have Zduriencik declining to comment when asked point-blank whether Hernandez failed a physical or not.

Nobody's talking, and all we really know is that a) last week, the world's Baseball Writers of America were led to believe that Felix Hernández was about to sign a contract extension that would pay him $175 million over seven seasons, and b) neither of the principal parties are willing to say anything about this supposed contract, and c) there are rumors that Hernandez might have some sort of elbow injury.

And that's about it.

Somewhere, I saw a suggestion that Hernández's new deal might be modeled upon CC Sabathia's contract. That doesn't seem so likely to me. For one thing, Sabathia's deal, which began last season, guarantees him $122 million through 2017. It'll be $122 million or $142 million. From Cot's:

2017 salary guaranteed if Sabathia 1) does not end 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury, 2) does not spend more than 45 days in 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury or 3) does not make more than six relief appearances in 2016 because of a left shoulder injury

Basically, if Sabathia's got a shoulder injury in 2016, the Yankees can pay him either $5 million in 2017 to walk, or $25 million to pitch. If he doesn't have a shoulder injury in 2016, the Yankees owe him $25 million in 2017, no matter what else is going on.

This is a different situation, or seems to be. If there are concerns about Hernández's elbow now, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to insert a clause in his contract about some hypothetical elbow injury, far into the future. Not to mention the salient fact that Hernández is already signed through 2014. This just seems like a completely different situation. This seems like a situation where you either a) put everything on hold until Hernández passes a physical with flying psychedelic colors, or b) predicate anything past 2014 on Hernández being healthy in that season.

There's been talk about a five-year extension worth something like $135 million. Even these days, $135 million seems like a lot of money. Especially for a pitcher with a lot of mileage. About that mileage, though ... Yes, he's thrown a lot of innings. Via Baseball-Reference.com, here's a list of pitchers since 1969 who have thrown the most innings through their Age 26 seasons:

Screen_shot_2013-02-11_at_10

All of them excellent pitchers in their times. With only a few exceptions, these guys didn't generally age particularly well, with only Blyleven and Maddux posting Hall of Fame numbers as starting pitchers. Ah, but Sabathia didn't throw a ton of innings in his early 20s, and he's aged well. Hernández didn't throw a ton of innings in his early 20s, either. Not like Valenzuela and Gooden and Tanana and Saberhagen.

There's a new paradigm since the 1990s; they don't let 21-year-old pitchers throw 240 innings. We just don't yet know if the new paradigm is going to mean that fewer great young pitchers peak early before suffering catastrophic or chronic injuries. If Hernández has an elbow injury now, that doesn't matter. But if he gets a clean bill of health, the Mariners will be investing $135-some million in that new paradigm, which they helped establish with their prodigal hurler.

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