SEATTLE -- When Felix Hernandez wrapped up a disappointing 2016 season in early October, he vowed to work hard this winter to return to "King" status for the Mariners. And his pledge to pitch in some games in the Venezuelan Winter League as well as on Venezuela's World Baseball Classic squad in March remain part of that plan, according to Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto.
Dipoto confirmed reports out of Venezuela that Hernandez expects to join the Navegantes del Magallanes club in late December and pitch in some Venezuela League games for the first time since 2003, when he was a 17-year-old just starting his pro career.
"We've been supportive of his desire to pitch in the WBC," Dipoto said. "And it's smart, if he's going to pitch in the WBC, we'd prefer he build up for that [with some work in the Venezuelan League] rather than just work into throwing shape in March like he'd normally do. It's a good solution. We've built some loose innings-progression plans. He's been in contact with me and [pitching coach] Mel [Stottlemyre Jr.]. We're all in agreement, as long as we can control the innings."
Dipoto said he's not worried about the 30-year-old throwing too many of his pitches in spring and then wearing down later in the year when the Mariners need him. Hernandez missed seven weeks last season with a strained calf and threw just 153 1/3 innings in 25 starts while going 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA. That ERA was his highest since 2007 and he snapped a string of eight straight seasons with 200-plus innings and 10 straight with more than 190.
"As long as you're moderating it, it shouldn't be that big an issue," Dipoto said of the lengthier buildup. "There have been plenty of guys that have pulled it off and done well with it. If we wanted to stop him from throwing in Venezuela, in theory we could. But in this case, we don't want to. We think it's a good thing and we're looking forward to seeing what kind of throwing shape he's in in March."
Hernandez traditionally has begun his throwing program in Spring Training about a week later than other pitchers, working his own schedule in preparation for the Major League season. But as he gets older, the Mariners feel he needs to make some changes to get stronger for the long haul, and this could help.
"Part of the attraction is it gives Felix something to really focus on and work toward this offseason," Dipoto said. "Especially coming off a year when his innings load was abnormally low, for all the years to start early, this is a good one.
"He's not going to pitch seven innings on Day 1 in Venezuela. He'll build his progression as you would in early spring. He'll pitch two to three innings and gradually work up to five. We're comfortable with him pitching 20 or so innings [in Venezuela] to get ready for the WBC, where you will throw 65-85 pitches in a start. The only way to get ready for that is to pitch."
Hernandez pitched for Venezuela in the 2009 WBC, but sat out the 2013 tournament while in the midst of negotiations on a seven-year, $175 million contract extension with Seattle.
As for risking injury for a player the Mariners are paying $25 million a year?
"Part of the fear with potential injuries with pitchers is not being acclimated to the pitch counts you'll achieve," Dipoto said. "This should help him get ready. The alternative was come to Peoria having not thrown to live hitters and almost immediately leave for Venezuela's WBC organization. If he was throwing 95 pitches [without the proper buildup], that would be of greater concern to me."
The World Baseball Classic is played every four years and Major League clubs typically start Spring Training a few days earlier than normal those seasons, around Feb. 10, in order for players to spend a little time with them before heading to their various countries for workouts.
WBC games will begin March 6, with Venezuela's first game on March 10 in Mexico. The 16-team tournament will conclude with semifinals and finals in Los Angeles on March 20-22. The Mariners regular-season opener is scheduled for April 3.
Most of the WBC squads won't officially announce their rosters until December, but Dipoto expects numerous Mariners to compete for their various countries.
"Felix made us aware he wanted to pitch in the WBC, but it's guesswork on who may or may not be on their team's lists," Dipoto said. "As a general rule, with all our players I'm supportive of whatever the player wants to do. We have a pretty diverse roster, so I'd assume we'll have quite a few players taking part."
Starter James Paxton seems a likely candidate for Team Canada this spring, closer Edwin Diaz is a logical selection for Puerto Rico and Kyle Seager could be considered for the U.S. squad.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.