SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez may no longer be one of the most dominant hurlers in the game, but Jerry Dipoto firmly believes the longtime ace still has the skills to have a significant impact on the Mariners and their upcoming season and now just has to continue adjusting to being a different kind of pitcher.
The Mariners' third-year general manager recorded his latest Wheelhouse Podcast with broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith on Tuesday and a good portion of the talk centered on Hernandez as Seattle sits just a week away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Peoria, Ariz.
Dipoto acknowledges Hernandez no longer is the same guy who went 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA in 31 starts in 2015. But he insists that if the Mariners can get 25 starts from Hernandez -- as they did the following year -- and the 31-year-old continues the change in pitching style he began leaning toward last year in an injury-shortened season, the outcome would be quite favorable.
"Felix's performance -- his actual ability to go out and perform -- is the least of my concerns," Dipoto said. "If Felix is healthy, he knows how to pitch. Whether it's breaking ball spin or quality of changeup, his pitch quality outside of his fastball is extraordinary."
Hernandez went 6-5 with a 4.36 ERA in 16 starts last year, missing three months with shoulder issues. But Dipoto looks at his walk rate -- which dropped from a career-high 3.8 per nine innings to a more-normal 2.7 -- and a strikeout rate that rebounded closer to his career norm as well at 8.1 per nine innings and saw signs of what a refined King could do.
Hernandez returned from the disabled list in time to hold the A's to two hits and one run over six innings in his final start last year, showing again what he could do even on a night he admittedly didn't have his best stuff.
But Dipoto knows keeping Hernandez healthy is the key to all of it and believes things can be better this year with no World Baseball Classic interfering with the preparation.
"The combination of a long offseason, a new training regimen and better understanding of who he is I think leads us to high hope for what 2018 bears," Dipoto said. "And high hope for us is not circling back to '09 or '06 and trying to remember the 97-mph Felix Hernandez.
"Felix still has the machismo, the presence, the pitch quality and pitchers' mind to go out there and be quite good."
Dipoto notes Hernandez still has one of the nastiest changeups in the game. The difference, now, is that his decreased fastball velocity has reduced the difference in speed between the two pitches. And that is another area where Hernandez needs to adjust.
"I can remember being with other clubs watching him throw that changeup 91 mph and it would dive off a cliff," Dipoto said. "He's still throwing that same changeup, the fastball just doesn't have quite as much separation and I think it took him time to figure that out.
"He's got a great feel for his changeup. I think it's been his best pitch for a number of years. It's an awesome pitch. As long as he keeps that changeup under the zone and keeps his fastball moving around the zone and has both breaking balls, any one of which he can throw for a strike at any time, that's a pretty good combination of events."
Hernandez isn't the only one who has to adjust to changing times as he's gotten older, however.
"Some of the expectations are unrealistic based on how good the peak of his career has been," Dipoto said. "This is one of the three most impactful Mariners in history. This is one of the best pitchers that has pitched in this century is maybe the most dramatic way I can put it.
"And there's no reason that shouldn't go on. The rarity in the game are guys like Nolan Ryan or Justin Verlander, who maintain super-high velocity well into their careers. Felix is going to overcome and figure this out."