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Elbow injury epidemic strikes phenom Fernandez

Pitchers' health should be of utmost importance to Major League Baseball

Oh, brother. Another No. 1 is biting the dust.

This time it's the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, who in 2013 crossed the Stephen Strasburg line to become baseball's best young pitcher. The kid from Cuba who was so consistently electric in his National League Rookie of the Year Award-winning season is headed to the disabled list and possibly to the surgeon's table.

All the team had confirmed on Monday was that the 21-year-old Fernandez is being put on the disabled list with what was being called a sprained right elbow He's had a couple of MRIs and left the team in Los Angeles to return to Miami, where he'll learn the results of the tests. But the South Florida Sun-Sentinel quoted a source as saying that Fernandez will need Tommy John surgery, which would end his season and put his status in question for the first half of 2015.

Here's hoping that we catch a break on this one, although it doesn't seem many people are counting on it.

At last count, 16 pitchers on 40-man rosters have had the Tommy John ligament grafting procedure this season, including starters Matt Moore, Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Ivan Nova, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Josh Johnson.

Pitchers are dropping in college, too, with highly regarded prospects Jeff Hoffman (East Carolina) and Erick Fedde (UNLV) getting the dreaded diagnosis within the last week. They were regarded as potential top 10 picks in June's First-Year Player Draft. No wonder White Sox fans are watching Chris Sale's recovery from a tender elbow so nervously.

Every one of these injuries was devastating in its own way, especially if it was to a pitcher on your favorite team. But the injury to Fernandez is one of the saddest since Strasburg's elbow blew out at the end of his rookie season in 2010, when he was 22.

Ask Mets fans how badly they've missed Matt Harvey. That's what life will be like for the Marlins if this situation is as dire as it seems.

You know injury is always a risk for a power pitcher. It just goes with the territory. But that makes it no less cruel when a precocious kid with Fernandez's talent is sidelined.

This kid is a joy. Selected by Miami in the 2012 Draft from Tampa's Braulio Alonso High School, Fernandez had never pitched above Class A before winning a job on the Major League staff last spring. He wound up with the second-best ERA in the Majors (2.19) to Clayton Kershaw (1.83) while striking out 187 in 172 2/3 innings.

Somehow Fernandez was 12-6 on the rebuilding Marlins, in large part because his combination of velocity and command allowed him to hold hitters to a .182 batting average. This year, he had picked up where he left off, and he has been bringing his team with him.

With a 20-18 record through Sunday, Miami is one of the best stories in the Major Leagues. Fernandez is 4-2 with a 2.44 ERA and a Major League-high 70 strikeouts in eight starts.

The Marlins know what a resource they have with Fernandez, and they have worked hard to protect him. They shut him down on Sept. 11 last season, giving him a workload in line with a Minor League season, and have pushed him to 100-plus pitches only 11 times in his 36 career starts.

Fernandez has never thrown more than 114 pitches in a start. He set that career high in Miami against the Dodgers on May 4, when he struck out 10 in seven innings.

There were no known warning signs, but Fernandez wasn't the same in San Diego on Friday. His fastball was averaging its usual 95 mph in the first four innings but dropped off in the fifth, barely topping 90. He didn't bounce back after that start, either, sending huge alarm bells around the organization.

Few organizations have as many strong arms as the Marlins, who sent the impressive Tom Koehler to the mound at Dodger Stadium on Monday. They'll be able to run a strong arm into the rotation in place of Fernandez -- if it's not 22-year-old lefty Andrew Heaney (3-2, 2.35 ERA for Double-A Jacksonville, with 44 strikeouts in 46 innings) now, he'll be up at some point before the year's over -- but Fernandez operates on a different level from all but about a dozen other pitchers.

Hanging in the balanced NL East race without Fernandez is a tall order. But his health is a bigger concern than the standings.

This storyline has gotten old -- real old. Can anything be done to stop the spread of this epidemic? In the short term, probably not. But orthopedic doctors are begging for more research dollars. It seems like common sense to make the health of pitchers a major priority for the sport. If now is not the time, then when?

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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