- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
VIERA, Fla. -- The Mariners worship at the throne of Felix Hernandez, because for them, he is The King, the centerpiece of their franchise. There's nothing more they want than for Hernandez to thrive, and for this, they'll pay him, happily.
But they'll have to work through some concerns about the elbow, whatever the specific nature of those concerns, and this is just the latest example of an industry trend.
As the dollars invested in salaries grow, and they become more precious in the draft system, teams have become more and more careful about reviewing players' medical records -- and, in the eyes of some agents, becoming more apt to throw up red flags.
The Hernandez case is apples to oranges with this kind of stuff; he's not a free agent, and is already under contract for the next two years. But agents and team officials note that the phrase "pending a physical" has never had deeper meaning than it does now.
This winter, for example, the Red Sox killed a proposed three-year, $39 million deal with Mike Napoli because of a hip problem, and the Cubs didn't follow through with a Dan Haren-Carlos Marmol deal that was being discussed with the Angels because of Haren's perceived hip problem.
There is also a concern among agents, however, that some teams are increasingly adding leverage in negotiations by red-flagging the medical reports of players -- usually because of legitimate concerns. Some agents also believe that sometimes teams do this because they want to either shave down the dollars agreed upon or to add favorable language to the deal.
"A player in that situation is in a rough spot," said one agent. "He has a choice -- he can either agree to a lesser deal, or go back out on the market with everybody thinking they're hurt. They really don't have a lot of choice."
There is a double-edged sword with the sport's improved medicine: Team doctors can see more, but they have the capability of seeing more potential for problems too with the improved MRI imaging. "You will literally have five doctors look at the same imaging and come up with different diagnoses," said one agent.
Team-affiliated doctors are viewed as being ultra-conservative, in the eyes of some agents, because they know that if a problem arises after a player signs the contract, the doctors may have to answer for their recommendations. "They're diagnosing the images, and symptoms," said another agent.
It's an imperfect system that can put the player at a disadvantage. Here's one possible solution: The final approval for any deal involving a player who is a free agent, or on the verge of free agency, could be placed in the hands of a panel of doctors agreed upon by Major League Baseball and the Players Association.
Under the current system, teams have access to medical records for free agents, which their doctors are free to review. With knowledge gleaned from those records, teams engage in talks with players -- but then, upon an agreement, the players then go through a round of medical examination with the team.
It is that time -- when they are in contract purgatory -- that players' leverage is sometimes being damaged. Once the Red Sox held up the completion of Napoli's deal, his position in the market was all but destroyed. Had he opted to go back out in the market rather than accept a restructuring of his deal with Boston, Napoli would've been hard-pressed to get anything close to the $39 million package that the Red Sox had agreed to; he ended up with a one-year deal with the Red Sox that guarantees him only $5 million.
A new system could work like this: Each prospective free agent could undergo an examination at the end of the regular season, under the supervision of a panel of doctors agreed to by the union and Major League Baseball. All teams could have access to that information.
Then, upon the completion of a contract agreement, the same independent panel would oversee another set of exams for each player. This would protect the team from an offseason injury -- such as when Francisco Liriano broke his non-pitching arm this winter -- but also would protect the player from any team damaging his free agency, either unwittingly or purposefully. It might work along the lines of how the California workers' compensation panel does.
The number of medical red flags is growing, and some kind of an adjustment is needed.
• Now that Napoli has a deal with Boston, he just wants to play.
• Felix Hernandez will be in camp, as Geoff Baker writes, and he has been throwing. And it may be that eventually, he and the Mariners agree to some sort of contractual language that gives Seattle some protection against an elbow injury.
But some kind of issue has been found.
In 2007, Johan Santana struck out 17 hitters in a game against the Rangers with 112 pitches. But by the end of that season, scouts noticed that he greatly reduced the number of breaking balls he was throwing, a shift which was translated by the Red Sox and Yankees, specifically, as a sign of an impending medical issue. Santana was traded to the Mets, got a massive contract, and the rest is ignominious history.
You'd have to believe the Mariners have been going through a similar exercise, examining evidence to see if there were any signs of trouble. Hernandez threw his perfect game on Aug. 15. Two starts later, he shut out the Rays. Going into September, it appeared as if Hernandez was the front-runner to win the Cy Young Award, which would've been his second.
But Hernandez was erratic down the stretch, posting a 6.62 ERA in his last six starts. His velocity -- which had been down at the outset of the season -- was actually up in the final month of September, and his dispersal of pitch types (how many fastballs, sliders, changeups, curves) didn't really change. There doesn't seem to be any evidence of a problem in the peripheral numbers.
Presumably, the Mariners and Hernandez have talked about whether he has experienced any symptoms; as Jack Zduriencik said to reporters Sunday, Hernandez has been throwing.
Beyond Hernandez, the Seattle pitching is less royal, writes Ryan Divish.
• The Astros' owner is a heck of a golfer.
• There is a new effort to work through the Rays' stadium logjam.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. Money is an issue for the Reds, but a plan is in place, writes John Fay.
6. A handful of pitchers are competing for the No. 5 spot in the Rangers' rotation.
• Here are five questions about Oakland, from Susan Slusser.
• All signs point to a culture change with the Astros, writes Brian Smith.
• Jim Leyland can't wait to get going, writes Tom Gage.
• Don't expect much drama in Chicago's spring training sites, writes Scot Gregor.
• The Twins' rebuilding comes with a lot of questions but not many answers, writes Brian Murphy.
• John Gibbons is a reflection of his hometown, writes Richard Griffin.
• A Rays catcher is coming back from a concussion.
• Dan Connolly runs through the most pressing issues of the Orioles' camp.
• Here are five questions about the Giants, from Henry Schulman.
• A couple of Padres who are coming back from injuries are ready to go.
• Here's the second part of two pieces on the Pirates' player development.
• Roch Kubatko runs through the competition in the Nats' camp.
• The Marlins face a tough task in trying to win back their fans, writes Craig Davis.
• The Uptons' upbringing was all about competition, writes Steve Hummer.
• Here are five questions about the Phillies, from Ryan Lawrence.
• A Yankees prospect beat cancer, as Anthony McCarron writes.
• ESPN's baseball coverage goes into full swing today, with the first "Baseball Tonight" broadcast at 2:30 p.m. -- Tim Kurkjian will be at the Giants' camp, and I'll be at the Nats' camp -- and the first "Baseball Tonight" podcast to be posted later today. Tim and Jayson Stark will be part of that.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney discusses how modern medicine is allowing teams to more effectively project injuries, which can make contract talks a sore spot. Felix Hernandez is the latest example.