SEATTLE MARINERS

Mariners Injuries: Mitch Haniger looks ‘entirely different’ from a year ago

Jan 19, 2021, 2:23 PM | Updated: 2:24 pm

Mariners Mitch Haniger...

Mitch Haniger was a 2018 All-Star but hasn't played since June 2019. (Getty)

(Getty)

This time last year, the Mariners were just trying to be optimistic that Mitch Haniger could play at all 2020 season. That never happened, but 2021 could be shaping up for a big return from the 2018 All-Star.

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Due to multiple injuries, surgeries and setbacks, it’s now been 20 months since Haniger has last played in an MLB game. The fact that he was able to slow down and wait until this year’s spring training in Peoria, Ariz., to come back may end with a big payoff, however.

“Mitch looks great,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said Tuesday as he kicked off the Mariners Virtual Baseball Bash by answering questions in a lengthy press conference. “For those of you who follow Mitch on social media, the posts he’s made, he looks terrific physically. Our assistant hitting coach Jarret DeHart went and visited Mitch live and spent a little bit of time with him and came away gushing. How good he looks physically is the takeaway.”

Haniger was first sidelined in June 2019 after suffering a ruptured testicle while at-bat in a game against the Houston Astros. What ensued over the next year was a particularly rough recovery that included three surgeries to correct core and back issues.

“As all of you know, this has been a tough year and a half for Mitch – not playing, the emotion that goes with not playing,” Dipoto said. “But more importantly, none of us, myself maybe most especially, really understood the significance of the two injuries that he was trying to recover from and rehabilitate at the same time.”

What Dipoto and the Mariners see now from Haniger, though, is night and day from the end of last winter.

“What he looks like today as opposed to what he looked like this time last year is entirely different,” Dipoto said. “He looks strong, he looks physical, he’s going through full baseball activity in a high-speed way that he just wasn’t able to do at any point over the last year and a half, so we’re really excited about seeing Mitch come in.”

Haniger, who turned 30 in December, was one of just a few cornerstones for the Mariners as they began a rebuild ahead of the 2019 season. Due to his long layoff, there’s been a lot less said about the talented right fielder’s role and expectations, but a big return this year could be a huge boost for the team’s quest to being a contender in the American League.

“The easy identification is when Mitch Haniger is healthy, he’s our best player,” Dipoto said. “Mitch is a multi-skilled, well-rounded, diverse player who when we’ve seen him at the top of his game is really one of the more complete players in the American League. If we can get some version of that Mitch Haniger back on the field, it really changes our arc, and we know that.

“He’s going to play his 30-year-old season this year. Nobody is more attentive to the way they keep and take care of their body than Mitch, and we feel like he still has his best years as a player in front of him, and we’re going to find out how close that is to reality when we get down to Peoria next month.”

More Mariners injury notes

Andrés Muñoz figures to be a future Mariners closer candidate, but the promising young reliever acquired in last season’s blockbuster trade with the Padres will still have to wait before getting a chance to show what he can do on the mound for Seattle as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

“Andrés will not be ready for opening day,” Dipoto said of the hard-throwing right-hander who turned 22 earlier this month. “He is throwing off the mound and his progression has been steady. He will be about a year in his recovery from Tommy John when we are down in Peoria, so right about the middle of March he gets to that 12-month mark, and if we’re being conservative, it’s usually a 12- to 15-month recovery from Tommy John. We would rather err on the side of caution, but Andrés, he’s been throwing free and easy for quite some time now. He feels great and the (physical therapists) have been very positive about where he is in his recovery.”

• Second baseman/utility player Shed Long Jr. will be ready for spring training after surgery for a stress fracture in his right tibia ended his 2020 season a little early last September.

“JD (DeHart) also visited with Shed. Looks great,” Dipoto said. “Swinging the bat, doing all of the baseball activity. Has recovered very quickly, and that’s a positive sign.”

The question with Long is where he fits into Seattle’s roster. He began 2020 as Seattle’s primary second baseman but had just a .171 batting average and .533 OPS in 34 games.

“Shed will come into spring training and compete whether it’s for that open spot at second base with Dylan Moore or the opportunity to get utility at-bats,” Dipto said. “We’ve given Shed some exposure moving him out to the outfield and other spots. He’s an athletic player, so we think he’s going to come 100% ready to play.”

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