SEATTLE -- While the nucleus of the Mariners' roster figures to remain in place next year as general manager Jerry Dipoto continues building around a core of established players returning, one change appears inevitable.
Felix Hernandez no longer can be counted on as the ace or guaranteed innings-eater he has been as he comes off an injury-plagued campaign, during which he threw just 86 2/3 innings while spending 92 days on the disabled list due to a pair of shoulder-related stints.
For a third straight year, Hernandez's ERA went up, rising to 4.36, while his innings declined. He'll turn 32 next April and no longer is the same durable right-hander who threw 190-plus innings for 10 straight seasons in his prime.
Hernandez said he's going to do some things differently this offseason. He feels he lifted too much weight last year with his shoulders and needs to focus more on flexibility and strengthening the small muscles in that area, along with more cardiovascular conditioning.
And obviously he won't be pushing early to prepare for Winter Ball and the World Baseball Classic this offseason.
"This is going to be a different year," he said after wrapping up his disappointing 2017 season. "I have to learn from my mistakes, try to be healthy for next year and be better."
But Dipoto knows he can't build a roster relying on Hernandez -- or any one pitcher -- to stockpile 200-plus innings.
Hernandez has two years and $53 million remaining on his contract, plus a $1 million club option for 2020 if he must spend 130 or more consecutive days on the DL at any point due to an elbow injury of any sort.
Dipoto is taking a realistic approach after seeing Hernandez's shoulder situation sideline him twice this season.
"Once you know you have these issues, it's just a matter of maintenance," Dipoto said. "The issues that Felix has incurred, they're happening under his skin. It's not something you can just 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 the club will look at ways to manage Hernandez differently next season.
"Whether that be 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's in the best position he can be," Dipoto said.
As his velocity continues to gradually decline, manager Scott Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. have tried convincing Hernandez he can be more effective and go deeper into games by focusing more on getting early contact instead of trying to dominate hitters as he did in his prime. And Hernandez grudgingly seems to be coming to the same conclusion.
"I like to strike out a lot of people, but when you get too nasty and have thrown too many pitches by the fourth inning, then I'm out of the game in the fifth," he said. "I just have to go out like I did my last start, throw some sinkers down and make some quick outs."
More than anything, he'd like to help the only franchise he has ever played for in his 13 years in the Majors reach the playoffs in the remaining two years of his contract. Hernandez has won a Cy Young Award, thrown a perfect game and been named to six All-Star teams.
But he's yet to pitch in the postseason.
"It's bad," he said. "It hurts a lot. But it's part of baseball. I thought this was the team. I still believe in this team. We've got pretty good guys. We just have to come out with a different mentality and try to fight from the beginning of the season and win a lot of games."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.