UPDATE: Monday, Feb. 11 at 8:40 a.m. ET by Will Carroll
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik told MLB.com that no deal was final and that he expected Hernandez to report to camp as expected on Tuesday. Zduriencik also said that he expected Hernandez to take a physical at that time. To be clear, this would be the normal reporting physical and not a signing physical.
Olney and several other reports, including one from Bob Nightengale that quoted Hernandez's agent, Alan Nero, continue to hold to their story, reporting that both the contract and the elbow issue remain in play for the Mariners and their ace.
--- End of Update ---
I've been watching Hernandez and his arm for a long time. Even over the last three years, there have been major questions about his arm, his mechanics and his long-term value.
If concerns were found during the physical regarding Hernandez's elbow (or his forearm strain from several years ago), the Mariners will be in a position to back out of the deal while retaining control of Hernandez for the next two seasons. Hernandez is due $19.5 and $20 million in 2013 and 2014, which would not have been affected by the negotiated extension.
Over the past four years, here are the things I have written about Felix Hernandez that might be pertinent to the current discussion:
As far back as 2005, Hernandez was the next big thing. In the Team Health Report that season, run at Baseball Prospectus, Hernandez's age and mechanics were enough to make him a red, or high, risk.
Felix Hernandez was the phenomiest of phenoms just a few short weeks ago. That doesn't make him immune to the problems most young pitchers face with adjustment, mechanics and usage. Hernandez looked out of sync in his start Sunday in Texas, losing control and looking at times like he couldn't find his arm in space. That could be fatigue, a bad day, or an early sign of elbow injury.
As good as he is and as much as I hope he has a long, healthy career, there's nothing in Hernandez's profile that makes me believe that will be the case. His age alone will have him as a "red light" player next year.
As Hernandez matured and grew into his arm, there were still some questions, but there were less due to his healthy career.
Hernandez's mechanics are still not ideal. The head kicking to the side might be somewhat reduced, but what I notice is that despite a run of new pitching coaches, Hernandez has been remarkably consistent. While no one really knows the joint loads he's creating, it's possible that consistently "bad" is something the body can adjust for in some cases.
In mid-2012, the M's held Hernandez out of a start. Days later, a back problem was disclosed, but this was just a sign that they were being ultra-conservative with their ace.
The Mariners have always been a bit cautious with Hernandez. Once known as an arm-shredding factory, the new M's have done well managing Hernandez and others through a course of healthy seasons. Given that and their place in the success cycle, there's very little reason for the team to put Hernandez on the mound after he left his last start with a sore back.
It's not considered serious, but if Hernandez can't get his side work in on Monday, they'll be smart and skip (or, at least, delay) his next start. There's just too much downside for Hernandez to make his next start unless he's perfect.
The Mariners did the smart thing by holding Hernandez out of his scheduled start. His back was still acting up on Monday, when he was scheduled to do his side work. It made for an effective "deadline" —miss the side, miss the start—and Hernandez didn't seem to fight the decision. The medical staff doesn't think this is serious, but the pain/spasm cycle is a difficult one to break at times.
The big worry beyond the immediate is that Hernandez loses some flexibility and changes his mechanics, leading to an increased injury risk. The medical staff has a couple days to work before the M's will need to make much of a move, so expect some more clarity by the end of the week.
The issues of workload and mechanics could prevent Hernandez from earning the biggest contract for a starting pitcher in the history of MLB. If the Mariners found something wrong during his physical, expect the organization to renegotiate some insurance into the deal, such as vesting options based on innings pitched for the third year and beyond.
What comes next will be key not just for the Mariners and their ace, but for other elite starting pitchers like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, who undoubtedly hope to build off Hernandez's good fortunes.
This contract snag is just another reminder that nothing is official until both sides sign on the dotted line.