Why a Mitch Haniger return to Mariners in ’23 makes most sense

Aug 16, 2022, 12:45 AM

Mariners Mitch Haniger...

Mitch Haniger runs to the dugout during the third inning in a game against the Los Angeles Angels. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The outfield was supposed to be a strength for the Mariners this season, or at the very least an area of depth. A big reason for that was Mitch Haniger, who played his first full and healthy season since 2018 last year, coming back as a cornerstone after smacking 39 home runs and driving in 100 runs in 2021.

Unfortunately for Haniger and the M’s, things did not go to plan.

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Haniger missed all but nine of Seattle’s first 108 games this year, first being sidelined in April with COVID then landing on the injured list for multiple months with a high-ankle sprain.

The depth hasn’t been there in the outfield for Seattle, either. While Julio Rodríguez has emerged as a blossoming superstar, left fielder Jesse Winker has fallen short of expectations at the plate while the Mariners never really found an answer in right field while Haniger was hurt. The most notable players who could have filled that role would be Jarred Kelenic, the former top prospect who struggled out of the gate in the big leagues this year and has subsequently spent the majority of the season in Triple-A, and Kyle Lewis, the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year who landed back in the minors himself last week and hasn’t been able to play much defensively due to a worrisome right knee that has been surgically repaired multiple times.

Haniger, meanwhile, has performed well since his return on Aug. 6, and he now owns a .294 average, .360 on-base percentage and .860 OPS with four homers and 10 RBIs in 18 games this season.

What makes this all very interesting is that the 32-year-old former All-Star is set to be a free agent this offseason.

MLB Network insider Jon Morosi dove into Haniger’s situation with the M’s on Monday, telling Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob that it probably makes the most sense for both sides to agree to a shorter-term contract.

“I think with Haniger, he probably means more to the Mariners than he would to other teams,” Morosi said. “And by that, I mean they know what he can do. They also know what’s unfortunately for him a two-inches thick medical report about everything he’s gone through the last couple years.”

In addition to Haniger’s ankle injury this year, he missed half of 2019 and all of 2020 recovering from a ruptured testicle that resulted in multiple setbacks and surgeries. He also had injured list stints in 2017 due to an oblique strain and taking a 95 mph fastball to the face. That injury history is probably going to impact his market in free agency, and Morosi believes a shorter deal that gives him the chance to prove he can still be a marquee player may be in the cards for him. And that might just be perfect for the Mariners in their current situation.

“If he picks up the phone and sort of wants to have a ‘prove me’ contract somewhere, I suppose he could pursue that. But I think he’s better off proving himself in Seattle,” Morosi said. “He knows the organization, he knows the ballpark. (The Mariners have) the All-Star Game (at T-Mobile Park in 2023) coming up. They finally got a good thing going. I think this looks like a one-year deal or a two-year deal with a player opt-out, something like that to stay in Seattle.”

If Kelenic or Lewis were more proven, Morosi said, it’s unlikely a spot would remain for Haniger with the Mariners. But that’s not the case.

“However much money that’s gonna cost (to re-sign Haniger) – let’s say it’s $15 million, just to use a number… that money is the cost of Kelenic not developing. That’s what it costs you. That’s the deal,” he said. “If Kelenic is ready, if he’s an All-Star now, Haniger leaves and you save that $15 million, but now you can’t, or you have to call up the Blue Jays and trade for Teoscar Hernández or trade for Lourdes Gurriel Jr., whatever it is. But you’re gonna need a righty bat who plays a corner (outfield position) because Lewis has been hurt too much, Kelenic hasn’t hit.

“… You need a bat. The Mariners, whether it’s Haniger or somebody else, they need to bring in an outfielder.”

For a player in Haniger’s position and the Mariners’ outfield in the shape it’s in, Morosi sees the two sides as the best fit for each other.

“You look at the universe of of reasonable options and I think Mitch Haniger makes a lot of sense to stay. And I also think that as his agent calls around, obviously we know what a tremendous player he can be and what a first-class person he is, but it’s hard to get another team to take that leap of faith, unless there’s a real history there, just given all the time he’s missed. It’s just that’s a hard thing to ask someone to do. And if I was Mitch, I would say, ‘Look, I want to prove myself on a one-year deal and I want to do it in the place where I know that I can play and hit, and that’s Seattle.'”

You can listen to the full conversation with Morosi in the podcast at this link or in the player below.

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