Mariners to handle Felix Hernandez differently going forward

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

SEATTLE — The days of Felix Hernandez using his overpowering fastball and deceptive change-up to dominate hitters for seven, eight or nine innings will become rarer in the future.

The Seattle Mariners believe shorter stints on the mound and potentially more rest between starts will be the way to ensure Hernandez’s long-term availability.

"I think that is going to be something to manage with Felix," general manager Jerry Dipoto said Tuesday. "I don’t know how we’re going to get him through 33 starts without managing it in a little different way than we managed it this year. Whether he’s starting less frequently, whether that be monitoring pitch counts in a different way than we have before, whether it’s part of his off-season training preparation and in season routines, we’ll do those things, whatever we have to do to make sure that he is in the best position he can be."

Hernandez is coming off an injury-filled 2017 season during which he made a career-low 16 starts due to a series of injuries, going 6-5 with a 4.36 ERA.

Hernandez had two different stints on the disabled list and missed a total of 92 games. He was sidelined by inflammation in his right shoulder in late April, returned in late June and was back on the disabled list in early August with bursitis in the same shoulder.

Hernandez had just two starts all season where he lasted at least seven innings. The Mariners believe this will be a trend with Hernandez going forward. Dipoto said he doesn’t believe there is a specific fix the Mariners can make to suddenly make Hernandez and his right arm more durable. Hernandez will turn 32 next April and he has thrown more than 2,500 innings in his career.

"I don’t know that he can try and stay healthier. Once you know you have these issues, it’s just a matter of maintenance. The issues that Felix has incurred, they’re happening under his skin. It’s not something that you can work harder and make ligaments stronger. You can’t lose weight and create more stability in an elbow joint. That’s not realistic," Dipoto said.

"What we’re dealing with is trying to best manage and create enough depth behind Felix so that when he goes out and takes his start that we can find a way to monitor his outings in such a way that he is out there as frequently as he can be and when he steps aside and inevitably needs a little bit of time down, we have somebody who can step in. But we can’t place expectations that we’re magically going to fix something and he’ll throw 180 innings. That’s not realistic."

While much of the conversation Tuesday surrounded Hernandez’s health, the Mariners appear ready to take a different approach with their pitchers next season. Seattle used a major league-record 40 pitchers in 2017, including 17 starters in part because of injuries and overuse. Even for the ace of their staff — James Paxton — that could mean shorter outings in the hopes of lessening concerns of overuse.

"What we’re not going to do is we’re not going to count on, and this is not singularly pointed toward James or Felix, we are not going to plan on innings pitched from starting pitchers the way we’ve counted before. That’s just not the way the game works," Dipoto said.